One death, 12 illnesses linked to salads from Springfield plant

One death and 12 illnesses from listeria have been linked to Dole’s Springfield plant, leading the company to voluntarily shut down the site.

Several packaged salad products have been recalled, including Dole and store brands for Kroger, Aldi, Meijer and Walmart. The salads can be identified by a product code that begins with an “A” on the packaging and were sold in 23 U.S. states, including Ohio, and Ontario, New Brunswick and Quebec in Canada.

The Centers for Disease Control and Food and Drug Administration have been investigating a multi-state outbreak since September. But the illnesses weren’t linked to the Springfield site until lab results from a packaged salad collected in Ohio traced the illness to Dole’s site here.

No other Dole products, including fresh fruit, vegetables and salads packaged at other facilities were included in the recall.

One Michigan man died and 12 people have been hospitalized, including one pregnant woman, in New York, Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Massachusetts. No Ohio illnesses have been reported.

Listeria is a food-borne bacterial illness typically found in raw vegetables and meats, as well as some soft cheeses. Vegetables can become contaminated from the soil or from manure used as fertilizer. No details were available Friday concerning how the salads may have become contaminated.

“This suspension and withdrawal is being performed voluntarily by Dole out of an abundance of caution,” Dole said in a statement.

Dole didn’t respond to requests for further comment Friday, and it’s not clear how long the facility will be shut down. Company officials also didn’t say how employees are affected, including whether they will be paid.

It’s also not clear what methods the company takes to test for bacteria at the site.

The recall and and regulatory action will be handled by the FDA, although the CDC will continue to investigate the outbreak, said Brittany Behm, a spokeswoman for the CDC. FDA officials referred questions to the CDC.

Neither Aldi nor Kroger officials responded to requests for comment. Meijer representatives said they’re aware of the recall and have removed the packaged salads from its shelves. Meijer will contact customers directly and through Meijer.com, according to a statement.

Walmart also pulled the products from its shelves, spokesman Scott Markley said. Customers will be able to return the products to stores for a full refund, he said.

The bacteria is most harmful to seniors, those with weakened immune systems and pregnant women, Behm said.

Dole is a top 25 employer in Clark County and has had a local presence since 2007. It started an $9 million expansion in 2014 to add more than 130 jobs and retain about 600 jobs. The expansion included three new packaging lines and one processing line for spinach, spring mix and baby lettuce products.

The contamination could have occurred during numerous points in processing, both inside and outside the plant, Behm said.

“All those things are still being investigated right now,” she said.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture initially found Dole products contaminated with listeria in an Ohio grocery store on Nov. 24 as part of its food surveillance sampling program and notified the FDA, said Ashley McDonald, a spokeswoman for the state agency.

State inspectors randomly test ready-to-eat products from grocery stores, including bagged salad, fresh produce, bottled water, juice or ice cream. They look for bacteria, including salmonella, E. coli and listeria, she said.

“If any of those get a positive, we’ll then notify the facility,” she said. “That’s how this product came to get a positive test.”

After finding the initial affected products, the state turned the evidence over to the FDA, which is handling the investigation.

Ohio doesn’t require listeria testing, McDonald said. However, food production facilities statewide, including Dole, perform in-house testing for bacteria on equipment, she said.

“From what I understand, they do it pretty regularly,” McDonald said. “If (Dole) gets any sort of positive hit on listeria generally, whether it’s the bad kind or not, they do sterilize wherever that positive came up environmentally.”

Even if Dole tested for the bacteria, a tiny amount can easily spread, said Zach Jenkins, a clinical infectious disease specialist for Premier Health Partners and an associate professor of pharmacy practice at Cedarville University.

The bacteria can live in water and soil and it can be present in raw meat, poultry, fish and vegetables.

“Really, if they’re employing good sterilization it’s something that’s preventable, but not necessarily 100 percent avoidable,” Jenkins said. “All you need is a handful of that bacteria to grow and propagate to really cause issues.”

Several agencies are involved in trying to prevent food-borne illnesses, beginning with the production facility working to produce and package the product in a clean environment, Jenkins said. Regulators need to investigate whether the bacteria came from the food itself or conditions at the plant.

“When you think about it we’re talking about things at a microscopic scale so it’s very hard to identify sometimes what that original source is,” Jenkins said. “What they often find is it’s not necessarily a failure. Some things just slip through the cracks sometimes as much as we try to put up all these defenses and processes and barriers to prevent infections.”

The CDC estimated about 1,600 cases of listeriosis, an infection caused by eating contaminated food, occur annually in the U.S. About half of those are reported. Nationally, 93 cases were linked to a food source last year.

Symptoms of listeriosis can vary. They can include muscle aches, a fever or gastrointestinal symptoms. But the bacteria can also affect the central nervous system, causing issues like confusion, loss of balance, and convulsions. Infections during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage, premature delivery or a life-threatening infection to a newborn.

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