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Why companies need a food safety culture

Listeria cases stemming from outbreaks traced to cantaloupe and, celery, and E.coli outbreaks linked to lettuce and bagged spinach are among various handled in recent years by Seattle law firm Marler Clark – a foodborne illness litigation specialist

Food poisoning outbreaks traced to fresh produce have become more prominent, according to Bill Marler, a US lawyer who specialises in food safety.

Listeria cases stemming from outbreaks traced to cantaloupe and celery, and E.coli outbreaks linked to lettuce and bagged spinach, are among various handled in recent years by Seattle law firm Marler Clark – a foodborne illness litigation specialist – where he is based.

But Marler, known in America as a food safety advocate, said it is not necessarily that more cases are occurring, but that they have become more noticeable.

It’s now easier to trace culprits

Marler’s focus on food safety stems back to the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak more than two decades ago, which involved undercooked beef patties in hamburgers. He said the case prompted improvements in outbreak tracing and, in particular, more widespread use of pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) – like DNA fingerprinting – which has made it easier to identify outbreaks linked to fruit and vegetables.

Simultaneously, consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables has increased in the US, as people aim to eat more healthily. With more people eating products such as lettuce, sprouts and baby spinach leaves – which are usually not cooked and therefore don’t go through a “kill step” before being eaten – the likelihood of more people getting sick has also increased, he said.

Tragic cases triggered changes

Among high-profile fresh produce cases in the US in the last decade was the 2006 E.coli outbreak linked to shredded lettuce in Taco Bell restaurants, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sickened at least 71 people, 8 of whom developed kidney failure.

Marler said such cases were the impetus for the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which passed into law in early 2011. “It would not have come about in the US but for these outbreaks linked to spinach and lettuce and other fruit and veg,” he said.

Similarly, farmers in California, where much of America’s lettuce and spinach is grown, created a food safety program – the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement (LGMA) – in the wake of an E. coli outbreak in 2006 that was associated with Californian spinach and saw 202 people become ill and 3 die.

Marler speaks at conferences around the world and said the number of outbreaks he hears about is not as high as in the early 2000s, “so that is a positive thing.” But he still sees cases linked to fruit and vegetable contamination, such as a Hepatitis A outbreak in 2013 linked to pomegranate seeds (arils) from Turkey in a blend of frozen berries.

Most outbreaks preventable

Marler said companies – especially branded companies – need to have a culture of food safety, to invest in it and make it as important as cutting costs and making a profit.

“One of the things we see many times is people talk about food safety and farm to fork safety but company focus tends to be more on sales and profit, which is understandable, and cutting costs.” However, after an outbreak they regret not having invested more in food safety and the personnel necessary for it, he said.

“In my view, if companies make food safety an afterthought and don’t invest in people to help run it and invest in processes to eliminate risk, and then don’t pay attention to details, they will eventually make a huge mistake.”

“i think really many of these outbreaks are preventable, or at least you can make them less severe and less of a major burden on the consumer and on the industry.”

Learning from past outbreaks

Marler said a common problem is the lack of attention paid to warning signs and another is that companies often don’t learn from other companies’ disasters, instead repeating the same mistakes, with tragic outcomes. “They think ‘it won’t happen to me.’ ”

He believes this was the case with the 2011 Listeria outbreak linked to whole cantaloupes from Colorado’s Jensen Farms. “So many people in the industry couldn’t have known, but every year there’s been a Salmonella outbreak traced to cantaloupe,” he said.

The Listeria case was America’s most deadly outbreak of foodborne illness in a generation, with the CDC receiving reports of 33 deaths and a miscarriage.

Direct reporting to CEO

In the US, the Sarbanes–Oxley Act requires CEOs and CFOs to certify the financial reports their companies file are accurate and complete. Marler said CEOs should similarly have to sign off on the adequacy of their food safety, a measure that would ensure it is on par with making money and cutting costs.

He stressed the importance of a direct relationship between the CEO and person responsible for food safety in a company, so they communicate any concerns directly to the CEO. Though critical, this is often lacking, he said.

Why leafy greens are vulnerable

Because they are grown on the ground, leafy greens are at more risk of contamination via animal intrusion or irrigation water and, furthermore, are often eaten with no ‘kill step’ between the harm and the consumer.

“Where produce is grown is critical, keeping animals out of the fields, paying attention to how it is manufactured and packaged, keeping the cold chain correct, all that comes into play. You can look at each outbreak and say there was a mistake made,” Marler said.


Image of Bill Marler: courtesy of Bill Marler

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Concern in EU over increase in listeria infections



There’s been a worrying rise in listeria infections in Europe but cases involving campylobacter – the most common bacterial cause of food poisoning – have stabilised and there’ve been less cases of salmonellosis.

They are among the findings in a report released this week by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

Listeria: acquired mostly from ready-to-eat food

Speaking about the rise of invasive listeriosis cases reported, ECDC Chief Scientist Mike Catchpole said this was “of great concern as the infection is acquired mostly from ready-to-eat food and may lead to death, particularly among the increasing population of elderly people and patients with weakened immunity in Europe.”

While listeria was seldom detected above the legal safety limit in ready-to-eat foods and the number of confirmed cases in 2013 was relatively low at 1,763, these reported infections were mostly severe, with higher death rates than for other foodborne diseases.

In 2013, a total of 191 deaths due to listeria were reported, 64 in France, and 13 listeria outbreaks1 reported, of which 8 were supported by strong evidence2. In 3 of those cases, crustaceans, shellfish and molluscs, and products thereof, were implicated.

More than 5,000 units of ready-to-eat fruit and vegetables were tested that year – mostly samples taken at retail level – and L. monocytogenes (the bacteria that causes listeria) found in 1.4 % of them.


Salmonella linked to 59 deaths

People infected with salmonella tends to suffer diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps but most recover without treatment. It accounted for 22.5% of total food-borne outbreaks in 2013 and was reported as the cause of 59 deaths (compared to 56 for campylobacteriosis).

The report said salmonella was most frequently detected in poultry meat, and less often in pig or bovine meat.

Of nearly 1,560 units of fruit tested, it was found in only 0.8 % of samples, including in pre-cut, ready-to-eat fruit tested at a processing plant in Greece, and in one sample in the Netherlands.

Of 5,915 samples of vegetables tested, 0.1 % were salmonella-positive. Salmonella was found in one batch of leafy greens imported from another EU member state and in two batches of baby corn of non–EU origin.

Viruses: ‘Fruit, berries and juices’ equal third among foods implicated

Foodborne viruses include calicivirus, hepatitis A virus, flavivirus, rotavirus and other unspecified viruses.

The report said that in 2013, EU member states reported a total of 941 foodborne outbreaks caused by viruses, representing 18.1% of all outbreaks reported in the EU. Of these, less than a tenth (86) were considered of strong evidence, and of them, the majority (76) were caused by calicivirus.

‘Fruit, berries and juices and other products thereof’ and ‘mixed food’ (both 11.6 %) were equal third among most commonly implicated food vehicles, coming after ‘crustaceans, shellfish, molluscs and products thereof’ (40%) and ‘buffet meals’ (14%).


Three Verocytotoxigenic E. coli (VTEC) outbreaks linked to vegetables, juices and related products

Vero cytotoxin-producing Escherichia coli (VTEC) are a group of bacteria that cause infectious gastroenteritis.

In 2013, a total of 73 outbreaks caused by VTEC were reported, with 12 supported by strong evidence.

Among the latter, the main food vehicle was bovine meat and products thereof (4 strong evidence outbreaks), followed by ‘vegetables and juices and other products thereof’ (3) and cheese (2).

Yersinia: salad and raw grated carrot have been past infection sources

Bacteria of the yersinia genus cause the infectious disease yersiniosis, which can produce diarrhea and abdominal pain.

In 2013, eight outbreaks were reported in the EU, involving 16 people. There was strong evidence for just one outbreak and the source identified as meat and meat products.

In the period 2007–2012, a total of 104 foodborne yersinia outbreaks were reported by the member states. The food vehicle was identified in only ten outbreaks; in three outbreaks, the source was contaminated vegetables – raw grated carrot (1) and salad (2).


1 A ‘food-borne outbreak’ is defined as “an incidence, observed under given circumstances, of two or more human cases of the same disease and/or infection, or a situation in which the observed number of human cases exceeds the expected number and where the cases are linked, or are probably linked, to the same food source.”

2 Based on the strength of evidence implicating a suspect food vehicle, EFSA categorises outbreaks as either “strong evidence” or “weak evidence” outbreaks.



Read the report “The European Union summary report on trends and sources of zoonoses, zoonotic agents and food-borne outbreaks in 2013”.