Ice Cream, You Scream, We All Scream

The Hysteria Behind Listeria - What You Should Know About the Ice Cream Recalls

Cherry ice cream cone
Ice cream and listeria recalls may cool our summer cravings. Susie Wyshak

I remember the first time I watched Eddie Murphy perform stand­up. There was a scene in which he dropped his ice cream in dog poop, picked it up, brushed it with his hand and muttered, “Sprinkles, just sprinkles”.

I thought those sprinkles were the worst thing you can have on ice cream, but then recent outbreaks taught me otherwise.

Three recalls involving Listeria in ice cream occurred within the same six-month period:

  • Snoqualmie Gourmet (WA) in December 2014
  • Blue Bell (TX) in April 2015
  • Jeni’s Ice Cream in April 2015 (OH)

A dozen has been made sick and three have died due to Blue Bell products.

How does all of this danger come from something so beloved as ice cream?

LISTERIA

The answer is Listeria. Listeria monocytogenes is a foodborne pathogen that can grow at refrigerated temperatures and survive below freezing. You cannot see, smell or feel it. And it has long haunted the dairy industry.

All Listeria needs is a little water and a little nourishment ­ which is why listeria is commonly found in drains and hard to reach places of food manufacturers. Listeria can be fatal to pregnant women, children, elderly and the immuno­compromised.

WHY ICE CREAM?

Listeria can be eliminated by means of pasteurization as done in the ice cream industry. So why are we seeing it in foods that are pasteurized?

There’s no one explanation for it.

Contamination happens when circumstance and the absence of controls collide. Contamination doesn’t happen in the ice cream’s production ­ it actually occurs after pasteurization.

Listeria is finding its way into the processing environment, where moisture and food mingle on surfaces like floors and drains.

Hardware like cartwheels and employee boots move Listeria through a factory on non­food contact surfaces, and splashing and indirect contact with contaminated surfaces lead to the contamination of surfaces that come into contact with food.

Recall My Product? You Can't Be Serious.

The most common reaction by food business owners and staff when it comes to a recall is disbelief. Blue Bell CEO, Paul Kruse, wrote recently: “Our entire history has been about making the very best and highest quality ice cream and we intend to fix this problem.”

The owner of Snoqualmie Gourmet Ice Cream told Food Safety News, “It came as a shock to all of us.”

No business ever intends to have a recall, and yet it happens. How could these businesses not know Listeria was in their plant?

The reality is that nothing has to be broken, something just has to go wrong. For many food businesses, investing in food safety is a form of brand protection. But when there’s no history of foodborne illness or the company isn't making label claims related to allergens, some business owners just don’t see the point of investing in developing and maintaining a food safety plan.

I have met plenty of managers that choose to use the absence of data to validate their practices as safe.

A manager of the prepared foods department in a grocery store one told me: “We haven’t killed anyone yet, so we’re doing something right.” True story. Another plant manager told me, “My parents eat it all the time and they’re doing just fine.”

It would be a lie to say these food business owners and plant managers don’t care about food safety.

They do care. They just haven’t been convinced that they need to do more and many of them lack the training to know better. Moreover, low margins and seasonal productivity make it challenging to make large budgetary decisions that support non-­revenue­ generating activities until it’s too late ­ i.e, a recall.

Continue > Learn what goes into safe food manufacturing and why investing in airtight sanitation processes is critical for food manufacturers.

About the Guest Author: Michael Kalish and his brother Charlie formed their consulting business Food Safety Guides in 2012 with the aspiration of making food safety accessible and affordable for small- to mid-sized food businesses. They use team-based strategies and affordable technologies to remove the obstacles that once made HACCP development, implementation and maintenance so very difficult and time-consuming.

See page 1 for the backstory on all the ice cream recalls due to Listeria.

 

What Makes Food Safety So Costly?

Testing is expensive.

  • The FDA recommended minimum number of test sites for a very small food processor’s listeria plan is 40 swabs/month (5 food contact surface and 5 non­food contact surface per week). Each swab costs approximately $35 each. Assuming there are no positives found that would prompt further testing, the annual cost of environmental testing would be $16,800.00. With positive results, the cost of environmental testing can easily triple.
  • Random product and ingredient testings is expensive and unreliable.

Training is also expensive.

  • Formal food safety training for staff is expensive and rarely provides businesses with effective tools, skill sets and support to build a team that can develop and implement a lean and responsive, food safety system.
  • Low wages and a high turnover rate makes it difficult to maintain a team.
  • Food safety program development can be very expensive.
  • Most solutions out there are based on expensive software systems designed for large businesses. These can cost over $8,000 in recurring annual fees.
  • Manually developed food safety systems can be extremely taxing to produce and maintain.
  • Most food business employees are not tech savvy and so fail to optimize affordable technologies.

The Future of Ice Cream and Food Safety

With these recalls, the ice cream industry will need to join the rest of the food industry in its overhaul of traditional quality assurance systems.

It is time that ice cream plants begin to periodically validate their sanitation programs as effective, actively monitor their environment for indications of poor hygiene, and invest in training (and retaining) qualified teams of employees.

The good news is that this transition to developing a food safety plan does not have to be expensive.

At Food Safety Guides our key to economizing food safety development is:

  1. Create realistic milestones in the context of a greater food safety roadmap
  2. Provide staff with technology training to improve communication across departments and create awareness of problems affecting similar plants
  3. Have a plan for managing positive (and negative) environmental testing results

In a press release about the ice cream recall, Blue Bell declared that they would be doing the following:

  • Expanding our already robust system of daily cleaning and sanitizing of equipment
  • Expanding our system of swabbing and testing our plant environment by 800 percent to include more surfaces
  • Sending samples daily to a leading microbiology laboratory for testing
  • Providing additional employee training

This is a great sign. Almost as good as sprinkles.

 

About the Guest Author: Michael Kalish and his brother Charlie formed their consulting business Food Safety Guides in 2012 with the aspiration of making food safety accessible and affordable for small- to mid-sized food businesses. They use team-based strategies and affordable technologies to remove the obstacles that once made HACCP development, implementation and maintenance so very difficult and time consuming.