More than two dozen people have been sickened in an outbreak of listeria.
The outbreak has been going on for the past 10 years, but authorities only recently linked it to a number of dairy products produced by Rizo-López Foods. The company has recalled the dairy products – 58 in all, including cotija and other cheeses, sour cream and yogurt – sold under several brand names at nationwide stores, including H-E-B and Trader Joe’s.
Lisa Gill of Consumer Reports said listeria is a very hard bacteria to kill, which is part of why this outbreak has persisted for so long.
“It lives very easily on manufacturing equipment, hard surfaces. It can live in freezers and refrigerators, and it’s just a very difficult bacteria to kill once it infects a kitchen or a processing center,” Gill said. “And so the fact that it’s been around for a while in this plant is maybe not that unusual.”
Gill said that a decade ago, we didn’t have enough information to link the outbreak to a specific product. Now, there’s a genetic test that can trace the listeria better.
“The FDA has been really good in these last few months. They have a new food safety director who has really gotten information out to the press a lot faster,” she said. “The other good news is really all the retailers have been able to remove these products off store shelves. And that includes everybody from Trader Joe’s, Costco, Whole Foods and 365 Whole Foods, along with H-E-B, and others. So retailers have gotten a whole lot better at being very rapidly responsive when there is a recall.”
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Gill said listeria is not pleasant for anyone but can be especially harmful for people with weakened immune systems.
“Listeria is really bad for just normal people. It’s annoying. Your stomach gets sick; you’re going to spend a couple days at home,” she said. “But for people that have weakened immune systems, very young people or older people, or people who are pregnant, listeria can be a really dangerous bacteria to become ill from.”
Gill recommended people go through their fridge and look at the dairy products to make sure they don’t have anything that might be contaminated.
“You’re looking for cotija cheese. You’re looking for ricotta cheese. You’re looking for all kinds of sour creams, queso fresco,” she said. “I have these in my refrigerator, and most people do. So you have to take a very close look. And I know it’s terrible because there’s so many products. My article is free online, and there’s a lot of others out there as well. Check the brands against what you have in the fridge.”
If you find a product that is on the recall list, Gill said to throw it out regardless of the expiration date.
“Once you’ve done that, if you do have a recalled product in your refrigerator, you’ve got to really clean the refrigerator out,” she said. “I would say one of the best things to do besides bleach – is always good, but bleach can be really tough – is white distilled vinegar and water. And that typically will help get rid of it, or hopefully get rid of it entirely.”
Gill said to also check pre-packaged food products that have dairy products included, like assemble-your-own salads or taco bowl kits.
“If you have purchased a salad product, particularly at Trader Joe’s or H-E-B, or actually a taco kit, go take a look on the website and match it up and make sure that you do not have one of the recalled products.”
Gill also said the fact that we’ve been hearing about more food recalls isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“Many of the state health departments have gotten really good at doing spot checks of finished products, but also spot checks of companies that are manufacturing in those states,” she said. “These health departments have grown in sophistication and their ability to do this kind of testing, and they’ve put a lot of resources toward this effort because a lot of it so many people get sick. Listeria is the third most common type of bacterial, foodborne illness. Fewer people get it than, say, salmonella or E. coli, but when they do, they can become really ill and even die from it.”