It seemed as if almost no food company was immune from the fallout when, on May 2, 2016, CRF announced the expansion of its frozen vegetable recall to include all CRF products produced over the preceding two years. The announcement, driven by fears of possible Listeria Monocytogenes contamination, initially affected 358 consumer products sold under 42 separate brands. Once that first stone was thrown into the water, however, the ripples quickly turned into waves as additional follow-on recalls were announced. One FSIS-regulated company was forced to recall an additional 50,000,000 pounds of not-ready-to-eat meat and poultry products simply because CRF vegetables had been incorporated as an ingredient. Many other similar products were affected as well.
What’s most interesting is that many of the products that were recalled were never intended to be consumed without cooking. Indeed, although the recall involved some frozen fruit products (which fall into a different category), the packaging on many of the frozen vegetable products were laced with detailed cooking instructions, which included disclaimers such as: “For food safety and best product quality cook to a temperature of 160° F.” Unlike E. coli O157:H7, which can cause illness with as few as 10 cells, Listeria Monocytogenes require much higher levels of contamination to make people sick.
Thus, was a recall of those frozen vegetables really needed? Could validated cooking instructions provide the answer? Could some type of alternative warning to consumers suffice?
Indeed, if the detailed cooking instructions on many of these ready-to-cook frozen vegetable products were followed, no one would have become ill. Similarly, many raw animal products, including beef, will sometimes carry Listeria Monocytogenes. According to FSIS, those products are not adulterated, and the agency recognizes that consumers can and do easily protect themselves by appropriately handling those products. In turn, if raw beef products containing safe-handling labels can be legally sold while knowingly contaminated with Listeria Monocytogenes, why can’t ready-to-cook frozen vegetables?
Is there a better solution to this problem? In current its crusade to eliminate Listeria Monocytogenes from all frozen vegetable products, which are rendered safe if cooked properly, I fear the agency may needlessly destroy hundreds of good companies, thousands of needed jobs and millions of safe meals.
The agency should, instead, permit companies to use validated safe handling instructions on these products. In turn, if a few consumers over the course of many years become sick because they decided to ignore those instructions, then the agency can address the discovery of Listeria Monocytogenes in those products with a Public Health Alert. Indeed, on the FSIS side, where Listeria Monocytogenes is permitted in raw products that require cooking, these alerts are used all the time:
FSIS issues Public Health Alerts to inform the public about potential health risks in cases where a recall cannot be recommended. For example, … illnesses may occur due to improper handling of a particular product and FSIS may issue an alert to remind consumers of safe food handling practices.
Perhaps, FDA should follow the same path. When it comes to frozen vegetables, the agency should require instructions that require cooking and, if illnesses result, the use of a Public Health Alert. To be sure, there will still be a massive market for frozen ready-to-eat vegetables and, the first food company that figures out how to do it on a mass scale, will make a lot of money. But, in the meantime, I would strongly recommend a more creative approach that recognizes both the importance of the overall public health and also the stark realities of the industry.