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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
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Is it Safe to Indulge in your Favorite Summertime Treat?

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Blue Bell Creameries is reportedly responsible for a recent outbreak of listeriosis in a Kansas hospital. Five patients became ill with listeriosis between December 2013 and January 2015 during their hospitalizations for unrelated reasons. Three of five of the patients died. When health officials investigated, it was determined that at least 4 of the 5 patients had consumed milkshakes made with a single-serving Blue Bell brand ice cream product called “Scoops” while they were in the hospital. Blue Bell recalled the affected products.

An investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that listeria contamination of Blue Bell ice cream could reach all the way back to 2010. To date, a total of ten people with listeriosis related to this outbreak have been confirmed from 4 states: Arizona (1), Kansas (5), Oklahoma (1), and Texas (3). Since the initial outbreak, other Blue Bell products tested positive for Listeria, prompting the company to voluntarily recall all of its products and suspend operations at all facilities. Even with the voluntary, product-wide recall, Blue Bell is at risk of lawsuits, not only by consumers but stores and distributors who are facing lost profits and whose name and goodwill have been affected.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, foodborne illnesses in the U.S. cause an estimated 48 million cases each year, including 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Foods causing illness or death in the last few years have not been limited to meats; the list includes the cantaloupe outbreak in 2011; ricotta cheese in 2012; and several outbreaks in 2014 including caramel apples. Shortly after Blue Bell announced its recall, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams announced a voluntary recall of all ice creams, frozen yogurts, sorbets and ice cream sandwiches.

Foods can become contaminated with bacteria due to careless sanitation practices which can usually be avoided with simple preventative measures such as food handlers washing their hands before, during and after food preparation. Improperly packaged food stored at the wrong temperature also promotes contamination. On its website, Blue Bell explains that its new testing procedure, called the “test and hold” system, will test all products and hold them for release until the results come back clean. The system will expand certain processes, such as daily cleaning and sanitizing of equipment, increase the surface area to be swabbed and tested, and sending daily samples to a microbiology lab. While these steps are impressive, it begs the question of why Blue Bell was not doing this all along to prevent the recall in the first place. Why do we seem to never learn from the Listeria mistakes of others?

Although there is a “zero tolerance” policy at the FDA when it comes to listeria, food safety expert Sandra Eskin said companies aren’t required to test for it — at least not until the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is implemented later this year. The FSMA aims to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it – something corporations should be doing from the start. It is time food companies look a little more closely at their food safety procedures, despite regulations requiring them to do so.

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.