Dole Knew About Listeria Problem at Salad Plant, F.D.A. Report Says


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A Dole vessel in Guayaquil, Ecuador. An F.D.A. report shows that products in a Dole salad plant tested positive for listeria nine times before F.D.A. inspectors showed up to do a test in January at a plant in Springfield, Ohio.

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Guillermo Granja/Reuters

The Dole Food Company, one of the largest processors of fresh produce, knew it had a listeria problem in one of its salad plants more than a year before it closed in January, according to a Food and Drug Administration report.

The report, obtained by Food Safety News and The Food Poisoning Bulletin through the Freedom of Information Act, shows that products in the plant tested positive for listeria nine times before F.D.A. inspectors showed up to do a test in January at a plant in Springfield, Ohio.

Four people have died after becoming ill so far in the outbreak, and 33 more across the United States and Canada have become so sick they have spent time in a hospital. Dole said the Justice Department was investigating.

“They’d been having positive tests for listeria for some time,” said Bill Marler, a prominent food safety lawyer who represents one of the victims in a lawsuit against Dole. “If the government inspectors hadn’t showed up, who knows when or if they were going to tell anyone.”

William Goldfield, a spokesman for Dole, said in an email that the company had corrected the issues at the plant, which recently reopened.

“We understand these recent news reports may raise questions among our consumers and customers,” Mr. Goldfield said. “They should be assured, however, that we have worked in conjunction with the F.D.A. to address those observations and ensure that Dole products are safe.”

Lauren Sucher, a spokeswoman at the F.D.A., said that companies must notify the agency when they find a food has a “reasonable probability” of causing serious adverse health consequences.

But, Ms. Sucher said, not all strains of listeria cause disease. “When listeria is found in the manufacturing environment, rather than on the food itself, it is not uncommon for a company to immediately take corrective action rather than test further to see if the strain of listeria poses a threat,” she wrote in an email.

Food companies that find listeria during periodic testing are not required to run further tests to determine whether the pathogen is of a toxic variety.

In Dole’s case, it was swabbing various locations in its plant in Springfield, Ohio, not necessarily testing the finished products, according to the F.D.A. inspection. Rather, Canadian public health officials investigating an outbreak of listeriosis dating to summer 2015, tested bagged Dole salads and found four varieties that were contaminated.

Other companies also have been aware of contamination in their facilities and not reported it.

Blue Bell Creameries knew it had a listeria problem in one of its plants about two years before it moved to close it, and never said anything. Ten people got sick, and three died from eating contaminated ice cream before the factory was closed.

Chipotle Mexican Grill was aware of a norovirus outbreak among people who had eaten in one of its restaurants in Simi Valley, Calif., but did not tell public health officials there until after it had closed and cleaned the restaurant. More than 200 people got sick from eating there.

The Justice Department also has criminal investigations in those cases.

Listeriosis, the disease caused by toxic listeria, produces diarrhea and other gastrointestinal symptoms, followed by fever, muscle aches and sometimes convulsions. It affects children, pregnant women and the older people the worst.

Mr. Marler said his client, a 77-year-old woman, became ill after eating a salad her daughter had prepared using a Dole product. He said the woman was in a coma for three weeks, developed meningitis and was still in rehabilitation.

Dole appears to have first detected listeria in its Springfield plant in July 2014. But the company kept processing salads and shipping them to locations in the United States and Canada.

The company found listeria in the plant at least five more times in 2014, and three times in 2015, according to the F.D.A. report. But the factory kept on churning out bagged salads until Jan. 21, five days after F.D.A. inspectors showed up. Dole initiated a recall a week later.

Public health officials in the United States and Canada had been trying to find the source of the outbreak since fall 2015, according to Food Safety News. They put the genetic fingerprints of the listeria obtained from victims into pathogen databases, and found a close match in a bagged salad that Ohio inspectors had randomly collected and tested.

Federal officials had identified problems in Dole’s Ohio plant as early as March 2014.

Among the concerns they raised were the company’s failure to maintain food contact surfaces in a way that would protect products from contamination, food residue remaining on equipment after it was sanitized, and a failure to adequately protect the plant from incursions by pests.

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