“At Dole, the safety of the foods we provide to our consumers, and the safety of our employees, are part of the fabric of our company. That’s why we’re concerned about the recent stories and publications about the FDA’s observation reports.”

– Dole Co. Spokesperson

dole food logoReactions to the Listeria outbreak at Dole Food Company’s Springfield, Ohio salad processing facility have been both polarizing and accusatory. It has been alleged by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that Dole Company officials knew beforehand that the Springfield salad plant had been contaminated with Listeria yet failed to cease production.

Regulators allege that the company took corrective action only after both U.S. and Canadian governments pinpointed the location as the origin of the deadly food outbreak. Company officials remain adamant that prior food safety concerns revealed by FDA inspections had been addressed and that production operations were conducted with the utmost diligence.

This article discusses the background and aftereffects of the listeria outbreak at Dole’s Springfield, Ohio location. The case brought forth by the FDA, the company’s response, and subsequent reaction of concerned stakeholders is discussed as well.

About the Dole Allegations

Listeria monocytogenes is a species of pathogenic bacterium that causes the illness Listeriosis — a serious public health concern in the United States. Sources of Listeria include: deli meats, hot dogs, raw milk, unpasteurized dairy products, seafood, and sprouts. Symptoms of the illness include: diarrhea, confusion, fever, stiff neck, weakness, and vomiting.

According to inspection reports obtained by the website Food Safety News, Dole Fresh Vegetables Inc. officials were made aware of the presence of Listeria in the plant a year and a half before shutting down production. Inspection report #483, obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, details the discovery of Listeria monocytogenes in a sample of the company’s bagged salad products.

Listeria | Image courtesy AJ Cann | Flickr

FDA officials allege that company employees conducted a swab test of surfaces within the plant in July of 2014, and that the surfaces had tested positive for Listeria. Despite this discovery, the company reportedly continued its production of salad products, distributing those products within the U.S. and in eastern provinces within Canada.

Additional internal inspections and tests that confirmed the presence of Listeria were purportedly conducted throughout 2014 and 2015, with the company continuing production and distribution of salad products from the facility until January of 2016.

It is further alleged that company officials, including the vice president of quality assurance and food safety, along with the quality assurance manager, were privy to the aforementioned test results. According to FDA regulators, the plant continued operations until January 21, 2016, at which time the company issued a recall notice to the FDA and Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) for salad products made within the Springfield facility.

During inspections that took place in March of 2014, the timeframe when food safety officials first suspected potentially systemic food safety issues, 16 citations were issued against the facility. These citations were generalized using three food safety observations: (1) “failure to maintain food contact surfaces to protect food from contamination by any source, including unlawful indirect food additives,” (2) “the plant is not constructed in such a manner as to allow floors and walls to be kept in good repair,” and (3) “failure to provide adequate screening or other protection against pests.”

Aftereffects of the Outbreak

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, the Listeria outbreak infected a total of 19 people in nine states. All 19 victims were hospitalized, including one pregnant woman. One victim from Michigan, unidentified on the CDC’s website, died from the illness.

On January 27, 2016, Dole reportedly ceased production at the Springfield facility and removed all salad products that were on the market at the time. The recall initiated by Dole included a wide variety of salad mixes distributed throughout the United States and Eastern Canada.

As a result of the perceived failure of Dole officials to correct its internal food safety issues, the U.S. Justice Department reportedly launched a criminal investigation of the company in April of this year. According to media outlets, Dole was contacted by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in regards to details of the investigation. According to Fox News, the Justice Department declined comment.

According to a March 17 statement by Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), “the outbreak investigation coordinating committee has been deactivated and the investigation is coming to a close.”

On April 21, 2016, the Springfield salad plant relaunched production operations, according to press releases obtained from the Dole company website. On April 29, the company issued its statement on the FDA reports. The statement notes improved “testing, sanitation and procedure enhancements,” while affirming their cooperation with FDA and DOJ authorities.