Partial Restate at Sara Lee Plant Michigan Unit Taking ‘Unprecedented’ Safety Steps - Chicago Tribune - March 4, 1999

By: Lisa Singhania
Chicago Tribune
March 4, 1999

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - A Sara Lee Corp. subsidiary linked to deadly Listeria outbreak resumed deli-meat processing this week using what it calls unprecedented safety measures.

Investigators at the Zeeland plant haven't yet pinpointed the source of the contamination, which prompted Sara Lee to recall 15 million pounds of meat. The outbreak has been linked to 14 deaths and six miscarriages in 22 states.

But Sara Lee spokesman Jeffrey Smith said Wednesday the company has implemented new steps to ensure "Sara Lee Premium Turkey Breast" produced at its Bil Mar Foods division is safe, including reheating the product after packaging to kill any lingering Listeria.

"We believe we are taking unprecedented steps," including an intensified program of checking contact surfaces and environments for pathogens, as well as enhanced training, Smith said.

Additionally, more than a half dozen federal meat inspectors and food safety experts are on hand to make sure the plant's newly redesigned safety procedures are being followed and are working, USDA spokeswoman Beth Gaston said.

She said in such cases when no exact source of contamination can be determined, the plant must develop a safer process. The USDA's role is to verify the food is safe, then act if it is not.

"If we find any Listeria in a ready-to-eat product ... that would mean either the product cannot be distributed to consumers or we would urge a recall," Gaston said. The government also can seize tainted products.

If the turkey breast passes federal inspection, it could be back at deli counters by the middle of March.

Processing began Monday, the first time Bil Mar has resumed processing of a product since the outbreak. And Smith said the plant hopes to add ham and roast beef deli products next week.

The company also plans to intensify "marketing activities," Smith said, but he declined to elaborate.

The restart does not apply to sliced luncheon meat and hot dogs. Those products will be made at other plants while Sara Lee reconfigures those production lines as part of an overhaul announced earlier.

The science behind Bil Mar's plan sounds reasonable, according to Elliot Ryser, a professor at Michigan State University's National Food Safety and Toxicology Center.

Ryser said high temperature can kill Listeria or other pathogens as long as they come in contact with the entire surface of the product.

He said the same approach likely would not work for hot dogs or sliced luncheon meats, given that packaging would make it difficult for the heat to come in contact with all the sides of the meat.

"I don't think this is to widely done at the moment, but a lot of companies are probably going to state some kind of similar process… process because of what happened at Bil Mar," he said.