FDA Intensifies Surveillance for Listeria in Ice Cream Plants: Implications for Egg Production?


In 2015, Blue Bell Creameries Inc. was forced to cease operation due to a trace-back from a listeriosis outbreak to three of their plants that yielded Listeria monocytogenes. The episode attributed to the Company had effectively been responsible for sporadic cases since 2000. In the event the owners of the family-held company were forced to relinquish control to an investment group that refinanced the enterprise during the prolonged period of decontamination and retraining of personnel before reentering the market.

Based on the experience with Blue Bell and given the risk of foodborne listeriosis and salmonellosis associated with ice cream, the FDA initiated a review of 89 plants in 32 states. In a release dated April 24th, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response, Frank Yiannas stated that the inspections conducted in 2017 and 2018 resulted in three voluntary recalls. The Agency provided guidance to rectify deviation from good manufacturing practices, some of which were characterized as violations. Yiannas stated “The results serve as an important reminder to all food facilities distributing products in the U.S. of the importance of complying with rules set forth to mitigate safety issues”.

It is evident that the FDA is becoming more proactive with regard to food safety. New antigen capture, field-deployable test kits, the introduction of whole genome sequencing as a routine in many laboratories and the presence of PulseNet and similar databases operated by the CDC are now in general use by trained epidemiologists. It is possible to identify outbreaks involving only a few patients and to determine the source of infection. Implications for the egg industry are self-evident. If any egg-borne Salmonella outbreak occurs due to deviation from the Final Rule on Prevention of Salmonella or if there is an emergence of a new pathogen, action by the FDA will be swift and decisive. This was clearly evidenced by the response in 2018 to a limited outbreak of salmonellosis attributed to a specific complex in North Carolina involving a recall of a substantial quantity of eggs and the depopulation of a farm with in excess of two million hens.

By now all egg packing plants should have a procedures manual specifying good manufacturing practices which will limit the possibility of introduction for dissemination of an egg-borne infection. All major packing plants conform to SQF Level 3 requirements as regularly updated, but this may not adequate to provide durable protection in a litigious environment. Many egg producers are adapting technology from the meat industry and even from human medical facilities to reduce environmental contamination. Training of personnel in HACCP and good processing procedures should be a component of company culture. With an increase in size of plants and complexes, the risks of transmitting an infection increase disproportionately as is evident from the 2010 SE outbreak associated with a farm operated by the DeCoster family in Iowa. Continuous review of food safety procedures and validation of HACCP programs should be a regular component of management. The FDA will be more proactive and aggressive in prevention of disease and has shown competence in recognizing and investigating multi-state outbreaks. Tort lawyers specializing in foodborne infections are quick to respond to outbreaks.