Dole salad products had been recalled in recent years due to concerns about salmonella and listeria before the recent outbreak that shuttered the Springfield facility in January, federal inspection documents show.
The Springfield News-Sun reviewed U.S. Food and Drug Administration records dating back to 2011 obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Those documents show the Springfield plant recalled products a handful of times after traces of listeria and salmonella were found in pre-packaged salad mixes produced there. However samples collected during subsequent inspections didn’t find evidence of contamination at the plant.
A recent lawsuit filed by a Warren County woman also cited at least eight prior outbreaks or recalls company-wide stretching back to 2006.
Dole voluntarily closed the Springfield site in January. It’s not clear whether the site has reopened, in part because company leaders have declined to comment multiple times, but the parking lots is often full of cars.
Products packaged at the facility in the current outbreak were linked to at least 19 hospitalizations in the U.S. in nine states, including one death in Michigan.
In Canada, the outbreak was linked to 14 illnesses in five provinces. Three people in Canada died, however it hasn’t been determined if listeria contributed to those deaths.
A food safety expert said it’s not uncommon for a food processing facility to remain shuttered for weeks or even months after a significant outbreak.
“This is pretty normal and falls within the expected range of remediation efforts on the part of the organization,” said Naila Khalil, an associate professor in the Center of Global Health at Wright State University.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday that the outbreak appears to be over. The Public Health Agency of Canada also recently said its investigation is nearing its end.
No illness with the outbreak strain have been reported since Jan. 31, said Brittany Behm, a spokeswoman for the CDC.
A separate investigation with the FDA and the company will likely continue to determine the initial source of contamination, said Sanja Ilic, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Sciences at Ohio State University and a food safety specialist.
Eliminating listeria from a production facility is a lengthy and sometimes expensive process, Ilic said.
It’s a hardy organism, Khalil said.
“Once it is in a facility you really have to make sure that all those nooks and crevices that you would generally expect other microbes to be is cleaned,” she said. “It survives there unless you are really looking for it and you have very rigorous decontamination processes in place.”
Khalil pointed to an outbreak last year linked to Blue Bell Creameries in which that company recalled all of its ice cream and other frozen dairy products in April after listeria was found in more than one product and one facility.
The company didn’t begin to distribute its products again until the end of August — about four months after the recall — and then only in selected markets. The last of its three facilities to go back online didn’t resume production until November.
The Blue Bell case involved 10 people in four states hospitalized in connection to the outbreak, as well as three people who died.
Listeria is common, Ilic said.
“It is present in soil, it is present in the environment so there is a variety of ways it can get into a product, especially fresh fruits and vegetables that are grown in a field and then brought into a processing facility,” she said.
The Springfield News-Sun reviewed dozens of pages of FDA inspection reports obtained through a public records request.
Those documents show FDA inspectors visited a handful of times since 2011 after samples collected by various agencies contained pathogens like listeria, E. coli and salmonella.
The records also show subsequent samples collected at the Springfield facility didn’t test positive for those pathogens.
One sample showing a contaminant here and there is fairly acceptable, Khalil said, unless an outbreak occurs that sickens more than one person.
The FDA inspected the Springfield site in March 2014 after Canadian public health authorities detected a sample of listeria in a pre-packaged salad blend processed here. Dole voluntarily recalled the product.
In that case, the FDA issued a report to the company for failure to maintain floors and walls in good repair and failure to provide adequate screening or other protection against pests. Additional observations included food residue found on multiple surfaces, water leaks and ice melt dripping onto the floor of the finished product warehouse from a container of iced broccoli.
Specific concerns listed in the report include a cutting board found with deep grooves that couldn’t easily be cleaned, ruts in the floor containing standing water and peeling paint and rust.
Company officials were cooperative and pledged to address those concerns, the report says.
While Ilic hadn’t reviewed the inspection reports, she said those kinds of findings are common in a food production facility.
“That’s pretty typical,” Ilic said. “The inspection is done and they’re looking into areas like pest control and facility design and they look into personnel training and hygiene and stuff like that. Those are pretty standard.”
The documents also provide a glimpse into Dole’s sampling and prevention procedures.
The firm collects environmental, water, raw material and finished product sampling, the FDA documents show. The 2014 inspection showed the company’s goal is 50 samples per week, chosen from a list of pre-designated locations on a rotating basis.
In cases in which a pathogen is detected, the area is cleaned and sanitized, followed by additional swabs in a pattern around where the original sample was taken and repeated until no additional traces are found.
The most recent inspection was conducted last fall after the Michigan Department of Agriculture detected a positive sample of salmonella in a bag of Dole brand baby spinach. Samples collected at the Springfield plant all tested negative for salmonella, the report showed.
In that case, inspectors didn’t find more serious violations, but raised issues to company officials, including pooling water on a concrete floor and signs of disrepair on cement barriers near packaging equipment.
The FDA visited Springfield in 2012 in response to a bag of Dole American Blend salad collected by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture that tested positive for listeria. It wasn’t detected in tests at the facility and no major findings were raised then.
In 2011 the FDA inspected after the Ohio Department of Agriculture found a bag of Italian Blend Dole Salad that tested positive for listeria, but subsequent samples all returned negative for the pathogen.
Product sampling in a food production facility isn’t a perfect science, Ilic said.
“It’s very difficult to detect a positive sample in a production lot because it’s a lot of product and you take just a little scoop for your sample,” she said.
An ongoing lawsuit
Dole faces a civil lawsuit from a Warren County woman who claims her mother was left in a coma after eating salad tainted with listeria from the Springfield facility.
Dole officials have declined to comment on the lawsuit. The company also hasn’t filed a response to the complaint, court records show.
The complaint shows Constance Georgostathis is seeking damages after her mother, Kiki Christofield, bought a Dole Salad mix at an Ohio Kroger store in late January and became ill. Christofield, of Hamilton County, was initially taken to a local hospital where she was treated with painkillers and released.
But her condition worsened, and she returned to the hospital on Jan. 31, according to the complaint. She soon went into a coma and remains hospitalized, according to Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who’s representing the family in the case.
The lawsuit also cites several other cases stretching back to 2005 in which Dole products from a variety of plants across the U.S. have been connected to food-borne outbreaks or in which the company voluntarily recalled a product due to health concerns. Along with Springfield, Dole also operates in Soledad, Calif.; Yuma, Ariz.; and Bessamer, N.C., according to FDA records.
The majority of those cases listed in the complaint didn’t involve illnesses and didn’t originate in Springfield.
A 2005 outbreak linked to pre-packaged lettuce led to 32 reported illnesses in three states tied to E. coli. The most serious case listed in the complaint was a 2006 outbreak of E. coli, in which Dole baby spinach produced at a California facility and sold under several brand names was linked to more than 200 illnesses and led to five deaths.
The complaint is pending in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio.
Possible expansion in limbo
The outbreak may have come at an important moment for both Dole and local leaders trying to boost manufacturing jobs in the county.
In 2014, Dole announced plans for a $9 million expansion at the Springfield facility that would add 138 new jobs over a three-year period. That expansion, which has since been completed, allowed the company to add three new packaging lines and one processing line to produce packaged vegetables, including spinach, spring mix and baby lettuce.
City leaders also recently approved a request to rezone a roughly 30-acre property next door to the Dole plant to provide space for an additional expansion at Dole, said Stephen Thompson, Springfield planning, zoning and code administrator.
The Clark County Community Improvement Corp. has an option to buy the property, but hasn’t exercised it, said Horton Hobbs, vice president of economic development for the CIC. Hobbs declined to discuss whether Dole or any other company might be expanding at the site.
“It’s prudent for companies to look for an area to secure their growth and that’s one of the areas the CIC works to help enable companies to be able to do that,” Hobbs said.
It’s not yet clear how or if the outbreak will affect Dole’s expansion plans. Clark County Commissioner John Detrick said he’s optimistic the expansion will move forward once the investigation and cleanup are completed.
“The potential expansion has been put on hold but we’re hoping that they’ll be coming back,” Detrick said.