Killer in Our Food - Detroit Free Press - August 24, 1999 (Part 3)

Now, sobbing as doctors at the hospital struggled to save her and the one baby, Lee couldn't believe her dream was vanishing without explanation. She pleaded with them: "Can't you do anything?"

There was nothing they could do.

An attempt to stop labor and prevent a miscarriage a few hours earlier had caused her blood pressure to crash dangerously low, nearly killing her. As it was, she still was running a 104-degree fever and was wrapped in an ice blanket. She had two IVs plunged in her arms, hydrating her and dulling her pain with drugs.

The first baby, Andrew Presston, was delivered at 1:21 p.m. January 20. He was 9 1/2 inches long and weighed 13 ounces. His sister, Alia Marie, arrived eight minutes later. She was 9 inches long and weighed just 10ounces. Both were dead.

Nurses carefully dressed the tiny bodies in pastel gowns and knit caps, wrapped them in blankets and then let the grieving parents say their good-byes. Only the clothes and blankets would come home with the young couple. They keep the items in a memory chest, with two stuffed bears, two tiny sets of footprints, an angel figurine and the babies' ashes.

Lee was still recovering in the hospital's intensive care unit when doctors discovered the cause of her miscarriage: infection caused by Listeria monocytogenes. Neither Lee nor her fiance, Jonathan Southworth, knew what the bacterium was. A friend visiting later that day put it all together.

The friend recalled that listeria was involved in the big Bil Mar meat recall.

Neither Lee nor Southworth had heard about the recall, launched Dec. 22. Nor had they heard about the test results that came back from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Dec. 25 - conclusively linking Bil Mar to the outbreak. Genetic fingerprinting tests later confirmed that bacteria in Lee's placenta matched the rare E-strain of listeria found at Bil Mar.

Which meant Lee had somehow been exposed.

As she thought back, Lee realized that she had eaten ham sandwiches as a midnight snack almost every night during the last few months of her pregnancy. To save money, the young couple -- who worked multiple jobs to save for a minivan for the twins -- bought whatever cold cuts were on sale.

Sometimes, they said, that was Sara Lee ham, made at the Bil Mar plant in western Michigan.

Lee now wonders whether her babies could have been saved if a doctor had thought of testing for listeria when she first became ill.

Why didn't it dawn on them, with a nationwide outbreak going on? Hospital officials declined to comment.

Lee said she asked her former doctor that question, and in effect was told: "You can't expect us to test every pregnant woman who has flu-like symptoms for listeria."

Lee isn't satisfied.

"Why not?" she asks.

THE SAME DAY, JANUARY 20, 1999 Sara Lee Corp. headquarters, Chicago

On the day Lisa Lee lost her babies, Sara Lee rannewspaper ads across the country, reminding people of the recall. The death toll had grown to 14.

The ad took the form of a letter, signed by Sara Lee Chairman John Bryan and President C. Steven McMillan. They urged people to check their refrigerators and freezers for recalled products, and not to eat the food.

"We deeply regret this situation," the ad said, "and we continue to make the safety and wholesomeness of our products our number-one priority. Please know that we are working around the clock to address the issues that led us to the decision to announce a recall."

The ad would be the first and only time that top company executives addressed the public about the recall, until McMillan granted a recent interview to the Free Press.

McMillan recalled that running the ad was a controversial decision within the company.

By the time it appeared, nearly a month after the recall was launched, publicity had died down. Which was good as far as the company's public relations experts were concerned.

The story of the recall had captured only spotty newscoverage. It was the holiday season, and it seemed all other news was overshadowed by the impeachment andtrial of President Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

So, McMillan said, he and Bryan feared that there might still be many people who hadn't heard about the recall.

In a business where image is everything, deciding to run the ad was far more difficult than deciding to do the recall, McMillan said. The Sara Lee brand name, long regarded as one of the most trusted in the nation, had already been hit hard by the recall and now the company was going to do the unthinkable in the world of public relations.

"The PR people were vehemently against us putting the ad out telling people not to eat our product," McMillan said. "Their view is, 'Look, you went through this thing, you got a lot of publicity, you seemed to survive it, people have forgotten it, it's out of their mind now. For God's sake don't go out and put an ad out reminding all these people.' "

But McMillan and Bryan were taking a longer view. They wanted customers down the road to have a positive view of how Sara Lee responded to the crisis. They wanted to protect the Sara Lee name.

So they were willing to take the hit, to publish the ads.

It was more than what the nation's food safety watchdogs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture did. They didn't issue their first press release about the recall until Jan. 28 -- more than a week after Sara Lee's ad and 37 days after the recall began.

And why did the USDA wait so long to warn the public? Because, USDA officials said, the company was handling it.

LATE JANUARY 1999 Kemper Insurance Co., Lincolnshire, Illinois

Another way Sara Lee handled matters was with a toll-free hot line to answer consumer questions. The company prepared scripts and question-and-answer sheets to help operators deal with callers.

More than 25,000 calls flooded the hot line. The callers were first greeted by a recorded message that listed the products being recalled. Then, callers had the option of talking to an operator. At the height of the recall, more than 4,000 operators were available to take calls.

They had two jobs: To answer questions from those who were afraid of becoming sick -- and to give special attention to those who said they already were.

When that happened, the operators instructed them to seek medical help and then transferred them to Kemper Insurance, which portrays itself in advertisements as the cavalry coming to the rescue. The company's toll-free number is 1-800-CAVALRY.

Kemper adjusters sought to get callers to agree to quicksettlements and turn over any potentially tainted meat they might still have, plaintiffs' lawyers said.

"They go into their homes and pick up the meat products and we haven't yet been able to get them back," said Kenneth Moll, a Chicago lawyer who represents more than 400 people in what he hopes will become a class-action suit against Sara Lee and Bil Mar. Moll said he's come across several people who signed papers from the insurance company that bar them from suing, in return for $300 to $400.

Other consumers said they were neither offered money by Kemper nor much help from Sara Lee.

Jean Grabowski, 61, of South Lyon in Oakland County, was among thethousands who sought advice from the Sara Lee hot line. Grabowski called it in mid-January. She had eaten Mr. Turkey hot dogs and hadn't been feeling well since the holidays.

Grabowski was worried. She had been reading articles in the Free Press about the outbreak. She knew people had died from the bacteria. And she had been suffering from severe abdominal cramps. Was she in danger?

"I wanted to find out if the hot dogs I had were contaminated because it had the right code on it," she said, referring to the packaging codes.

The person answering the Sara Lee recall hot line asked Grabowski a few questions, she said. Grabowski told the operator that she had eaten the hot dogs and was feeling sick. That, Grabowski recalled, prompted the operator to quickly transfer her to Kemper Insurance --without asking any further questions.

Like thousands of other callers, Grabowski had been routed to risk management workers at Kemper Insurance.

Damage control was under way.

"They asked me if I had any hot dogs left," Grabowski said recently, recounting the conversation this way:

"Yeah, I still have them."

"Are they frozen?"

"Yes."

Grabowski had only eaten two out of the pack before putting them in the freezer. The operator, she said, then made this offer: "We'd like someone to come and pick them up. Keep them frozen until then."

That was fine by Grabowski. Maybe she would find out whether the meat she ate was contaminated. On Feb. 9, Grabowski received a letter from Kemper Insurance's risk management department instructing her to complete a claim form and sign a medical authorization form that would allow the company complete access to her entire medical history.

That seemed excessive to Grabowski. "Geesh, they wanted my medical history from the time I was born," Grabowski said.

She set the letter aside. A few days later, she received a call from Kemper saying a woman named Nanette would be coming to pick up the hot dogs. Grabowski, surprised it had taken so long, carefully put the package in a plastic bag, tucked in her name, address and the claim number she'd been assigned by Kemper and a note asking that she be called with the test results.

On a Saturday morning, Feb. 13, Nanette arrived and took the hot dogs away.

"Will someone call me and let me know if they're contaminated?" Grabowski recalled asking Nanette.

Grabowski says she was assured, "Yes, definitely." But she never heard back, she said.

"The part that upset me is they never contacted me to let me know," said Grabowski, who has been through a battery of unpleasant medical tests. While doctors didn't find listeriosis, she was diagnosed with a spastic colon.

She hired a lawyer, Harvey Chayet of Southfield, who said he wasn't surprised by Grabowski's experience.

"The whole business of this 800 number wasn't set up to help anyone out of genuine concern for their health," Chayet said. "It was set up out of genuine concern for the financial health of Sara Lee."

"They're looking to protect themselves and they're looking to get rid of these claims as cheaply as possible," Chayet said. "The insurance companies are not out there to protect the consumer."

Chayet, who has sued Bil Mar and Sara Lee on behalf of Grabowski and others, said his office was contacted by several people who had already signed Kemper's forms, collected a small settlement and were now barred from suing.

Kemper officials declined to comment. Theresa Herlevsen, a Sara Lee vice president, acknowledged that Kemper sought to settle claims and collect food for testing, but said there was an earnest attempt to keep people informed of test results when they requested them.

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 22, 1999 Law offices of Kenneth B. Moll & Associates, Chicago

Ken Moll was in his element. Basking before the TV cameras, he began his attack on Sara Lee with a calm smile.

On this day, Moll had just filed a motion with a state court in Chicago seeking a judge's approval for a nationwide class action on behalf of people who said they had been harmed by Bil Mar products.

He was quickly becoming Sara Lee's newest nightmare.

Chicago lawyer Kenneth Moll has made a name suing deep-pocket corporations. He says he has more than 400 clients in the Sara Lee case. He might have had more but, he says, the insurance company got people to sign away their right to sue, for $300 or $400.

Moll had invited the press to his offices on the 37th floor of a skyscraper called Three First National Plaza - which also happens to be home to Sara Lee, based nine floors above the conference room where Moll was holding court.

As he laid out the highlights to his case, Moll read excerpts from the diary of John Bodnar, whose wife Helen died from the outbreak, and spoke of the suffering endured by many others.

And for that, he said, Sara Lee would pay.

"The reimbursement alone could cost $2 billion for Sara Lee," he said.

Moll had made a career of being a major irritant to big companies like Sara Lee.

He saw himself as a guy who succeeded the hard way. He grew up poor in rural Wisconsin and was dubbed a real-life Rainmaker a few years back by Court TV. The reference was to a young lawyer in the John Grisham novel of the same name who successfully took on a large insurance company that refused to pay for a potentially life-saving bone-marrow transplant.

When Moll was just a year out of law school, he represented a 5-year-old boy who was brain-damaged by a reaction to the DPT vaccine and won a $4.5-million award. It was cited at the time as the largest award of its kind for a vaccine liability case.

Since then, he had been one of the lead lawyers in breast-implant litigation against Michigan-based Dow Corning; taken on the tobacco industry; and sued the makers of the diet drug combination fen-phen.

Among other cases, he also sued Hostess for allegedly selling Twinkies filled with asbestos-contaminated cream. And he went after the organizers of the infamous fight between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, when Tyson bit Holyfield's ear. Moll contended that ticket-holders and pay-per-view customers didn't get their money's worth.

Moll never shunned publicity. Colleagues at a firm where he worked before had nicknamed him Mr. Hollywood. And to the chagrin of his adversaries, Moll loved taking his cases to the media. Over the years he appeared on national television shows ranging from the "McNeil-Lehrer Newshour" to the "Jenny Jones Show," where he has been a guest several times.

In prepping for his battle against Sara Lee, Moll obtained court order to allow him to tour the Bil Mar plant on March 2. Dressed in jeans and cowboy boots, before going into the plant he gave a brief press conference at a diner just down the road from the plant in Borculo. As TV cameras rolled, he offered his theories on how the meat became tainted.

One possibility: That workers tracked bacteria as they moved back and forth between the turkey slaughter operation and the processing areas. Another: Fans installed near a storage room for spoiled and other inedible food scraps may have spread the bacteria. And still one more: That dirty equipment provided a breeding ground for bacteria.

"The big issue here is cross-contamination," he said.

With that, he and his hired entourage of experts, former Bil Mar employees, and a video and still photographer sped off to the plant. It was a scene that would still have Sara Lee brass grumbling months later -- annoyed by this lawyer who had never even been in a meat plant, yet acted as if he had all the answers.

"We've all learned a lot more about listeria than we ever expected to at this stage," said McMillan, the Sara Lee president. "And one thing we've learned is there is a huge amount that is not known about listeria, which added to the uncertainty that was kind of prevalent -- and continues to be prevalent."

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 7, 1999 A second-floor apartment, Columbus, Ohio

Tears flowed down Eunice Ntukogu's face as she talked about her brother Chris and the horrible way he died. She still had so many questions.

That was little comfort for the 101 families across the country whose loved ones paid with their health or their lives.

Like Ntukogu, many felt betrayed by what is often touted as the safest food supply in the world. Betrayed by doctors who failed to diagnose the deadly disease in time. Betrayed by a company they trusted.

They were still grieving. Still without answers. And still bitter.

"I don't get it," said Ntukogu, 33. "It's just a big mystery to me. I just wish somebody would come out and give me something to go by. I have so many questions and I don't have any answers."

When her brother Chris died on Christmas Eve at the age of 31, it technically was as a result of a head injury sustained after falling out of his bed in the intensive care unit at Ohio State University Medical Center. But it was listeria that had landed him in the hospital.

After emigrating from Nigeria, Chris Ntukogu grew up in Columbus and attended Ohio State, where he walked on as a member of the football team and earned master's degrees in social work and African studies.

Smart and personable, Chris Ntukogu began to make a life counseling teens, despite failing kidneys that forced him to spend much of his time in hospitals or on dialysis.

In 1994 he received a transplant. It gave him four years of good health, long enough to marry and witness the birth of his son.

But by September 1998, Chris Ntukogu's transplant was failing and he was sick with periodic fevers, his family said. Too ill to work, he was again in the hospital and on dialysis.

Complicating matters, they said, was a new liver problem that doctors couldn't figure out. Until his liver was well, he couldn't get another kidney, even though he had family members willing to donate.

Even though he was in the hospital for most of three months with fevers and diarrhea, doctors didn't diagnose Chris Ntukogu with listeriosis until it was too late, his family said.

Delirious with fever, he fell out of bed in the intensive care unit a few days before Christmas, his family recalled. They said his brain was hemorrhaging, and neurologists told his sister they needed to operate immediately.

As he was being prepped for surgery, Eunice Ntukogu recalls, her brother's kidney doctors told her they had finally discovered what was causing his high fevers. She recalled them telling her: "We just figured it out. He has some kind of bacteria in his body. Have you ever heard of listeria?"

The doctors said they knew how to treat Chris for listeriosis, she said. But they did not get the chance. After surgery he never regained consciousness and died on Christmas Eve of a cerebral hemorrhage.

"If he had listeria all this time and the hospital wasn't able to find it until the last minute, it kind of bothers me," she said. "For them to find it at the very last minute when everything went wrong . . ."

OSU Medical Center spokeswoman Heather Jacobson said the hospital could not comment about the Ntukogu case.

Through her brother's long illness, Eunice Ntukogu had taken care of him. She'd nursed him, taken him to doctors' appointments, helped him pay for the many medications he needed to prevent his body from rejecting the transplanted kidney.

She also made sure he ate well. Doctors had advised Chris Ntukogu to eat a lot of protein, such as meat. But after the transplant, he lost his appetite and couldn't eat heavy meals.

So what he ate most was turkey sandwiches, his sister said.

It's hard for her to reconcile how food that was supposed to make her brother stronger may have killed him. Tears flooded her eyes.

"God, it was such a horrible way for him to die," she said.

"You bet it can happen again, and it probably will."

The hunt for the culprit in the Bil Mar outbreak is over. But across America, listeria keeps claiming victims.

In the eight months since Bil Mar Foods recalled 35 million pounds of hot dogs and lunch meats, there have been at least 32 additional food recalls because of contamination with Listeria monocytogenes. As for the human toll, precise numbers aren't available yet. But federal health officials estimate that so far this year 600 Americans have contracted listeriosis from sources other than the Bil Mar plant. About 120 of them have died, they estimate.

While the Bil Mar outbreak served as a wake-up call to regulators, industry and consumers about the danger of listeria, there is every reason to believe such an outbreak can -- and likely will -- happen again.

"You bet it can happen again and it probably will," said Carol Tucker Foreman, the former head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

"There's just no way right now for either government or industry to keep it from happening again," said Foreman, now a food-safety advocate with the Consumer Federation of America.

Industry officials agree, but say the outbreak has prompted food companies to improve their sanitation efforts. "Clearly there is more vigilance today," said Jim Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute Foundation, a meat industry group.

While some steps are being taken, the hurdles to significantly protecting consumers from Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat foods are many, according to food-safety advocates, industry officials and regulators.

Among the key problems:

Listeria is elusive, virulent and difficult to eliminate from food processing plants.

The industry is opposed to increased regulation, but without mandates companies may be reluctant to test for the bacteria inside their plants and particularly in processed food. They fear that if they find it they'll face citations or costly recalls.

And federal regulators are shackled by laws that prevent them from forcing quick changes.

Two major weapons in the fight against bacteria - irradiation of food and bacteria testing in meat plants - are at least two years away, advocates, industry officials and regulators said.

Their best advice in the meantime: If you are in a high-risk group -- a pregnant woman, an elderly person, or a person with an immune system compromised by AIDS, cancer treatments, lupus, or other diseases - don't eat hot dogs and lunch meats unless you cook them thoroughly.

USDA takes action, but not enough to satisfy industry, consumers safety advocate Caroline Smith DeWaal says the USDA hasn't done enough.

That's the only way you'll know for sure that they're safe.

"We've taken a very large number of steps to try to improve things," said Kaye Wachsmuth, deputy administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Public Health and Science.

"What we're trying to do is hit it on every front," she said. "If that's successful, we won't have another Bil Mar."

The Bil Mar outbreak seriously sickened 80 people nationwide and killed 21. In its wake, the USDA has increased its testing of food for Listeria monocytogenes. The agency expects to take 5,000 samples nationwide this year, up from about 3,500 last year.

Along with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the USDA is studying which kinds of foods are most susceptible to listeria contamination. Until Bil Mar, there had never been a meat-borne listeria outbreak in the United States, although there had been in Europe.

Since May, the USDA has been urging the meatcompanies they regulate to test surfaces in plants, as well as finished food products, for the bacteria.

And beginning this month, USDA inspectors are checking that all plants that make ready-to-eat meats have re-evaluated their procedures for controlling listeria.

While the USDA's actions have some merit, neither industry officials nor consumer advocates see them as particularly effective in attacking the listeria problem.

"The USDA's response to date has been disappointing," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

She adds that while USDA officials have publicly talked tough about the need for plants to test for listeria, they aren't requiring it.

Consumer groups had also hoped the USDA would require precooked foods, such as hot dogs and lunch meats, to carry warnings on their labels about the need for at-risk people to cook them thoroughly a second time.

"I think the government response has been weak largely because they find rule-making so burdensome," DeWaal said. "It isn't enough to have sickened over 100 and killed 20. The requirements of rule-making are so onerous that the agency will do anything to avoid it."

Because of a general effort by Congress to limit the number of new regulations, it takes about two years for the USDA and other federal agencies to get a new regulation on the books. During that time, the proposed regulation must pass strict tests to ensure that the need for the regulation outweighs the burden and costs to businesses.

The USDA's Wachsmuth said the agency has not ruled out the possibility of new regulations to protect the public from listeria, but said getting them is "terribly time-consuming."

"Of course we're hopeful the industry will listen to our recommendations," she said.

Industry groups like the National Food Processors Association and the American Meat Institute agree that food plants should test equipment, floors and drains for listeria.

While some companies are testing, others are balking at testing on the advice of their lawyers, industry representatives said. They worry about test results being misinterpreted.

For example, the industry worries that a plant might be pushed to do an unnecessary recall if the plant's testing found some evidence of listeria in places such as drains or floors, but not in foods. Manufacturers also worry that lawyers or regulators could use the test results against them unfairly if they do a recall.

"Unfortunately some of the legal issues are a stumbling block in what we can do to make the best product we can," said Dane Bernard, vice president for food safety at the National Food Processors Association. "There's been some short-term, knee-jerk reaction about whether you ought to have this kind of data lying around. And that discussion is still going on."

"If a plant is implicated in an outbreak, those records will end up in court and be used against you," Bernard said. Nonetheless, "my advice is to do the testing and minimize the chance of having an outbreak."

Industry officials see a host of better food-safety procedures -- such as reheating of packaged meats, new antibacterial food additives and irradiation -- as the best weapons against listeria.

On Monday, the American Meat Institute Foundation announced plans to spend $5 million over the next two years on research and other projects to help reduce and ultimately eliminate Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat foods.

Also on Monday, a coalition of industry groups, including the National Food Processors Association and the Grocery Manufacturers of America, petitioned the FDA to allow for irradiation to be used on ready-to-eat meats and produce. Irradiation, which uses gamma rays to kill bacteria, is viewed by consumer advocates and regulators as an important food safety tool. But the federal approval process will likely take two years and even then, there is concern that consumers may be reluctant to purchase irradiated foods.

In the meantime, consumer advocates like Foreman urge consumers to be careful with hot dogs or lunch meats.

"You have a package that says it's USDA inspected, so people assume that it's safe. You have a package that says 'ready-to-eat,' so people assume that's not a lie. The product has a date on it that says, 'Best if consumed by.' Three things say it's OK to scarf it down. But that's not true if you're pregnant, have AIDS or a suppressed immune system for any reason."

Safety advocate Caroline Smith DeWaal says the USDA hasn't done enough.

That's the only way you'll know for sure that they're safe.

"We've taken a very large number of steps to try to improve things," said Kaye Wachsmuth, deputy administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Public Health and Science.

"What we're trying to do is hit it on every front," she said."If that's successful, we won't have another Bil Mar."

The Bil Mar outbreak seriously sickened 80 people nationwide and killed 21. In its wake, the USDA has increased its testing of food for Listeria monocytogenes. The agency expects to take 5,000 samples nationwide this year, up from about 3,500 last year.

Along with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the USDA is studying which kinds of foods are most susceptible to listeria contamination. Until Bil Mar, there had never been a meat-borne listeria outbreak in the United States, although there had been in Europe.

Since May, the USDA has been urging the meat companies they regulate to test surfaces in plants, as well as finished food products, for the bacteria.

And beginning this month, USDA inspectors are checking that all plants that make ready-to-eat meats have re-evaluated their procedures for controlling listeria.

While the USDA's actions have some merit, neither industry officials nor consumer advocates see them as particularly effective in attacking the listeria problem.

"The USDA's response to date has been disappointing," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. She adds that while USDA officials have publicly talked tough about the need for plants to test for listeria, they aren't requiring it.

Consumer groups had also hoped the USDA would require precooked foods, such as hot dogs and lunch meats, to carry warnings on their labels about the need for at-risk people to cook them thoroughly a second time.

"I think the government response has been weak largely because they find rule-making so burdensome," DeWaal said. "It isn't enough to have sickened over 100 and killed 20. The requirements of rule-making are so onerous that the agency will do anything to avoid it."

Because of a general effort by Congress to limit the number of new regulations, it takes about two years for the USDA and other federal agencies to get a new regulation on the books. During that time, the proposed regulation must pass strict tests to ensure that the need for the regulation outweighs the burden and costs to businesses.

The USDA's Wachsmuth said the agency has not ruled out the possibility of new regulations to protect the public from listeria, but said getting them is "terribly time-consuming."

"Of course we're hopeful the industry will listen to our recommendations," she said.

Industry groups like the National Food Processors Association and the American Meat Institute agree that food plants should test equipment, floors and drains for listeria.

While some companies are testing, others are balking at testing on the advice of their lawyers, industry representatives said. They worry about test results being misinterpreted.

For example, the industry worries that a plant might be pushed to do an unnecessary recall if the plant's testing found some evidence of listeria in places such as drains or floors, but not in foods. Manufacturers also worry that lawyers or regulators could use the test results against them unfairly if they do a recall.

"Unfortunately some of the legal issues are a stumbling block in what we can do to make the best product we can," said Dane Bernard, vice president for food safety at the National Food Processors Association. "There's been some short-term, knee-jerk reaction about whether you ought to have this kind of data lying around. And that discussion is still going on."

"If a plant is implicated in an outbreak, those records will end up in court and be used against you," Bernard said. Nonetheless, "my advice is to do the testing and minimize the chance of having an outbreak."

Industry officials see a host of better food-safety procedures -- such as reheating of packaged meats, new antibacterial food additives and irradiation -- as the best weapons against listeria.

On Monday, the American Meat Institute Foundation announced plans to spend $5 million over the next two years on research and other projects to help reduce and ultimately eliminate Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat foods.

Also on Monday, a coalition of industry groups, including the National Food Processors Association and the Grocery Manufacturers of America, petitioned the FDA to allow for irradiation to be used on ready-to-eat meats and produce. Irradiation, which uses gamma rays to kill bacteria, is viewed by consumer advocates and regulators as an important food safety tool. But the federal approval process will likely take two years and even then, there is concern that consumers may be reluctant to purchase irradiated foods.

In the meantime, consumer advocates like Foreman urge consumers to be careful with hot dogs or lunch meats.

"You have a package that says it's USDA inspected, so people assume that it's safe. You have a package that says 'ready-to-eat,' so people assume that's not a lie. The product has a date on it that says, 'Best if consumed by.' Three things say it's OK to scarf it down. But that's not true if you're pregnant, have AIDS or a suppressed immune system for any reason."

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