Listeria continues to plague food manufacturers this year
John McKissick knows firsthand it can mean a life sentence of disability.
This spring, CRF Frozen Foods of Washington State recalled more than 350 of its frozen vegetable products sold under 42 different brand names after eight people became infected with the foodborne illness Listeria from eating the vegetables.
This June, the Food and Drug Administration informed Whole Foods that Listeria bacteria were probably present on food contact surfaces in a company food processing plant in Massachusetts that prepared ready-to-eat food. The agency warned Whole Foods that “your cleaning and sanitation practices may not be adequate.”
This summer, General Mills recalled some of its Nature Valley protein and nut bars because the sunflower kernels in them may have been contaminated with Listeria.
And the list goes on.
Listeria is a bug not to be taken lightly. Or easily removed from food plants.
A major cause of death from foodborne illness.
While the Listeria bacterium is responsible for fewer than one out of every 10,000 cases of food poisoning in the United States, it is so virulent, especially in older adults, that it’s the third-leading cause of death from food-borne illnesses.
Even if you manage to live through the experience, your ordeal may not be over. Just ask John McKissick.
A harrowing story.
In 2012, John McKissick was a 69-year-old executive management trainer and consultant who had recently returned home to Murrysville, Pennsylvania, after having worked in the Middle East.
“I had hoped to continue working until I was 70 or 75,” he remembers. “But Listeria brought that to a screeching halt.”
McKissick had the misfortune to eat French cheese that a local Whole Foods supermarket had cross-contaminated with Listeria from tainted Italian cheese. The store had cut the Listeria-laced Italian cheese into smaller pieces and repackaged them as its store brand. In the process, someListeria must have attached itself to a worker’s finger, a knife, or a counter surface that later came in contact with a cheese that ended up in his wife Pat’s shopping cart.
About a week after McKissick ate the cheese, he became ill with chills, fever, high temperature, vomiting, and headaches. “Pat and I thought it was some odd strain of the flu and that I would get over it in a week or so,” he remembers. (Pat didn’t get sick.)
The worst kind of listeriosis.
Listeria can cause diarrhea and other GI symptoms that typically clear up by themselves. But John had contracted invasive listeriosis, which meant that the infection had spread to his nervous system and brain.
When McKissick got worse and started passing out, his wife took him to the hospital where he was admitted to the intensive care unit.
At first, the hospital didn’t know what was making him so sick. “Listeriosis isn’t common like colds or the flu,” notes McKissick, “so most doctors don’t recognize it right away.”
John, unfortunately, belonged to one of the high-risk groups for listeriosis. Adults 65 years and older are four times more likely than younger people to get Listeria infections. Also at high risk are people with weakened immune systems and pregnant women (who generally recover, but often miscarry).
McKissick’s condition continued to deteriorate.
“My temperature skyrocketed, my blood pressure was out of control, my heart rate was bad, and my breathing was depressed.”
“He was so very, very sick,” says Pat. “John had seizures and a blood clot in his lung and there was a possible heart attack.”
The doctors didn’t know if he would survive. They told Pat to summon their two sons and other family and friends to say their goodbyes. “I couldn’t believe that my husband of 49 years was fighting for his life.”
Pat had good reason to worry. In severe listeriosis cases like John’s, half or more of the patients die, according to the Food and Drug Administration. One son rushed home from Africa, where he was serving in the Peace Corps, the other from New Mexico.
Finally, a diagnosis.
Finally, after about a week, a lumbar puncture test revealed the presence of Listeria. The diagnosis: Listeria meningitis.
Most cases of meningitis—a swelling of the protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord—are caused by viruses. Meningitis that comes from Listeria or other bacteria is rarer, but is typically more serious. If not treated quickly, it can cause deafness, epilepsy, and brain damage.
John spent weeks in the hospital, fading in and out of consciousness. “I had a lot of hallucinations which were pretty crazy,” he says.
The long road back.
After a month, the hospital moved John to a rehabilitation facility for brain injuries, where he underwent a grueling six weeks of physical therapy.
“It took a lot of work for me to learn to speak, walk, and feed myself again,” he says. “It wasn’t pleasant.”
More than two months after he was rushed to the emergency room, John returned home in a wheelchair.
“He couldn’t walk well, and he was very medicated,” says Pat. Even now, years later, he takes 12 drugs a day, and he will be on anti-seizure medication for the rest of his life.
John wanted to return to teaching. “But I really had no choice,” he says. “My speech was degraded, and I had become very uncomfortable being around a lot of people. I could talk to one person, but if you added more people to the mix, I would feel very anxious.”
Listeriosis also affected his balance. “And I have tremors in my hands, so I can’t really write much of anything.”
Then there’s the fatigue. “I get tired very quickly and I’m likely to fall asleep in the afternoon, or maybe even in the morning.” Pat says that it’s hard to see him like this because he was such an active person.
“I used to enjoy hiking and rafting and other outdoor activities,” says John, “but I wouldn’t try any of that now.”
One tough bug.
Listeria monocytogenes “is one of the toughest food-borne pathogens to control,” says Fadi Aramouni, a food-safety expert at Kansas State University.
“Unlike other microorganisms that cause food poisoning, Listeria survives in cold, wet environments, where it can grow and multiply,” he explains. It hides in niches in walls, in drains, and in spots where condensation forms, especially in cold rooms where plants package already-cooked foods like hot dogs and luncheon meats.
“It has even been known to land on food in drops of water,” says Aramouni.
It’s not that Listeria is resistant to disinfectants, he adds. “It’s just that it will hide in cracks in walls and other places that sanitizers sometimes miss.” Companies can prevent Listeriacontamination, notes Aramouni. “But it requires constant vigilance.”
You can find FDA’s announcements of food recalls at its Recalls, Market Withdrawals, & Safety Alerts.
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