By: Candess Zona-Mendola

Costco is back in the news with yet another frozen food recall this year.  This time the retailer is under fire for listeria-tainted frozen food items as it relates to a massive frozen food listeria outbreak and recall involving well over 350 products of frozen food items from over 42 plus brands. Costco’s private brands are included in this recall of epic proportions, pun intended. What is being thought of as the largest frozen food recall of all time, the Costco Listeria Outbreak has many a concerned consumer asking themselves, “Am I sick?”

Costco’s Ongoing History of Frozen Food Outbreaks and Recalls

This is not the first time Costco has been in the spotlight with frozen food items that are in some way tainted or dangerous for consumption. It seems that this year, and even in the last 3 years, Costco has been involved in several outbreaks and recalls related to frozen foods.

As you may remember, in April of 2016, Costco was under fire for a hepatitis outbreak linked to frozen organic fruit under the Nature’s Touch brand that is exclusively sold at Costco. During this outbreak, 12 people had confirmed Hepatitis A infection and three people were hospitalized. The main culprit product involved its “Organic Berry Cherry Blend,” and the retailer was outwardly called-out on its lag to notify its patrons about the recall on their website. The recall, that was instituted due to findings by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, primarily affected Canadian consumers.

An earlier recall, with yet another frozen food product, involved Townsend Farms and another product – organic frozen berries. During this outbreak and recall, 162 people were sickened by Hepatitis A, 71 of which required hospitalization. The recall affected several states, including: Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.

The 2016 CRF Frozen Foods, LLC Listeria Frozen Food Recalls: What You Need to Know

The CRF Frozen Foods, LLC recall has been unfolding rapidly in the last few weeks. What started on April 23, 2016 as a seemingly small voluntary recall has exploded into a massive one with an outbreak status stamped on it. This recall, which has now had at least eight expansions, was most recently added to by McCall Farms Incorporated with its Piggly Wiggly brand frozen Yellow Cut Corn on May 13, 2016. This latest development joins Twin City Foods, Inc. of Stanwood, Washington, ConAgra Foods, Ajinomoto Windsor, and The Pictsweet Company to join in on voluntary recalls of frozen produce products in the last week or so. These companies have identified that the recalls are based due to frozen food products they received from CRF Frozen Foods, LLC with concern that they may be tainted with listeria. Unfortunately, it is not just the peas themselves that are being recalled, but rather all products that may contain them. The brands affected include: HEB, Central Market, Sweetfrost and Woodstock. The company claims there are no illnesses that trace back to them at this time.

It all started March of 2016, when the Centers for Disease Control, Food and Drug Administration, and other public health officials in several states commenced routine inspections on CRF Frozen Foods, LLC products that came out of its Pasco, Washington plant. These investigations resulted in findings that CRF Frozen Foods, LLC’s Pasco Washington plant was compromised with listeria bacteria, and there was a possibility that frozen food items processed in this facility maybe contaminated.

As a result, on April 23, 2016, CRF Frozen Foods, LLC issued a voluntary recall of some of its products – stating that they had a potential to be compromised with listeria and that no illnesses had been reported at the time. The initial recall was relatively moderate and mainly focused on organic frozen vegetables – green beans, peas, and corn. CRF Frozen Foods, LLC announced that it suspended all productivity to its Pasco, Washington plant, the location at issue, on April 23, 2016. The investigation remained ongoing.

Less than a week later, on May 2, 2016, CRF Frozen Foods, LLC expanded its recall – which included over 358 products. The recalled products, which now are both fruit and vegetables, traditional and organic, include: broccoli, butternut squash, carrots, cauliflower, corn, edamame, green beans, Italian beans, kale, leeks, lima beans, onions, peas, pepper strips, potatoes, potato medley, root medley, spinach, sweet potatoes, various vegetable medleys, blends, and stir fry packages, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, peaches, raspberries, and strawberries. The list is not exhaustive. Over 42 brands were subject to the recall. Costco’s private label products were included in this recall. There are also other well-known and popular brands, including: Panda Express, Trader Joe’s, Safeway, Bybee’s, Columbia River Organics, Organic by Nature, Live Smart, Parade, and O Organic to name a few.

Within another week, more and more companies and brands issued their own recalls – including McCall Farms Incorporated, Twin City Foods, Inc. of Stanwood, Washington, ConAgra Foods, Ajinomoto Windsor, and The Pictsweet Company. Again, even this list is not exhaustive. For a full list of products and brands included in the recalls, please visit the Food and Drug Administration’s website here.

It is now known that the recall spans all fifty states and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan – leaving many people dumbfounded at how many retailers and brands use the same third-party producer to obtain and package their frozen produce. Most of the affected products bear sell by dates between April 26, 2016 and April 26, 2018.

Consumers have become outraged that the recall was wrongly delayed and is coming too late. CRF Frozen Foods, LLC admits in its recall notification that its Pasco, Washington plant may have been contaminated as early as May 1, 2014 and that the first report of someone made ill with a strain of listeria tied to this outbreak occurred in September of 2013. CRF Frozen Foods, LLC maintains that the recall is merely out of an abundance of caution.  However, it is hard to ignore the magnitude of products subject to the recall. Again, if you want to learn more about the recall specifically or check the items subject to the recall, visit the Food and Drug Administration’s notification page here.

The details of the outbreak are still unfolding and the investigation by the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control, and state local governments is ongoing.

What is being done?

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control notified all retailers of the verified outbreak and announced that eight people have been hospitalized as a result of contracting listeria. Two people have also died – purportedly from causes not related to the outbreak. The Centers for Disease Control utilized sophisticated recording measures and laboratory testing to conclude that several people have fallen ill with the same strain of listeria – one as early as September of 2013. In essence, the Centers for Disease Control has utilized scientific techniques of pulsed-field gel electrophoresis and whole genome sequencing to map the complete genome of the bacteria subject to this outbreak, and has compared it to each of the known individuals who have become ill. This revolutionizing technique, partnered with a nationwide database, is what allowed the Centers for Disease Control, Food and Drug Administration, and local state agencies the ability to piece together that something may be wrong with CRF Frozen Foods, LLC’s Pasco, Washington plant.

Retailers, such as Costco, have posted notifications of the outbreak on their websites, and have even gone as far as to contact its consumers to advise that they may have purchased a compromised product. Costco has offered its consumers that they can return the products that have been tied to the recall and receive a refund.

The good news about this whole mess is that governmental agencies have been called to action. Once the Ohio Department of Agriculture found the contamination through a random sampling of products cut sweet corn and green peas, from a retailer, they went to work piecing together whether or not the strain of listeria found matched that of people who had made previous reports of listeria poisoning. Through genome sequencing and the very useful data reporting system now used by state and federal agencies, they were about to discover that the listeria found in the products sampled was closely related, genetically of course, to eight different ill people. Once these findings were deemed verified, CRF Frozen Foods, LLC was notified. The subsequent closure of the Pasco, Washington plant occurred and the massive product recalls.

The Centers for Disease Control, Food and Drug Administration, and state governmental agencies are working together to discover the origin of the listeria contamination, be it a product source or other supply chain that may be involved. We will not know the outcome of this for some time – if ever, as the Food and Drug Administration is prohibited from releasing public information about supply chains, as it is confidential commercial information. What we do know is that the Food and Drug Administration has publically announced that the investigation into this outbreak will continue “to determine what, if any, connection exists between the product sample isolates and the environmental samples.”[1] Food and Drug Administration has also mentioned that it will continue to notify the general public as more information is found.

As more information becomes available, there is a possibility that more products and brands may be added to the recalls.

What is Listeria? Could I have it?

When a recall and outbreak of this magnitude begins, and one is notified that one may have ingested a compromised product, one tends to have a concern that one may be ill. This fear is real and not unfounded. Here is some information to help you gauge your situation and give some additional assistance on what you can do now.

Most people who have learned about this outbreak and discovered that frozen food is involved have had some confusion. Frozen food is supposed to be essentially bacteria free, right? Wrong! Even frozen foods like produce and ice cream can be contaminated with listeria – not just meat, eggs, and milk.  Listeria is a hardy bacteria that could lead to severe illness. Its hardiness also involves its ability to live in cold environments, such as your freezer and frozen food products.

Due to the fact that this particular bacteria is hardy, it can stay in one place for a long period of time and cause severe illness. Primarily, the elderly, small children, and people with compromised immune systems are warned that bacteria like listeria could lead to severe symptoms and illness – with potential long-term effects. Listeria is also dangerous to pregnant women, and could lead to fetal complications, miscarriage, and still births. Most healthy people may have symptoms including headache, fever, abdominal pain, nausea, weakness, muscle pain, and diarrhea. However, despite this, listeria can also be deadly. It is important to seek medical attention if you believe you have potential ingested a contaminated product and are exhibiting any of the above symptoms. A physician may need to order urine or a stool laboratory tests to determine if listeria was indeed contracted.

In the meantime, it is recommended that the general public take this outbreak and its recalls seriously. Again, listeria poisoning can lead to severe illness, that can (and has) lead to death. The elderly, the young, those with weakened immune systems, and pregnant women should be on high alert

What Can You Do Now to Protect Yourself and Your Family

Despite the ongoing concerns about additional potential recall items or the ingestion of already recalled items, you still have a way to protect your family and yourself from contracting listeria as it relates to this outbreak. Below are some helpful ways you can help keep you and your family safe:

  • Thoroughly check your freezer for potentially compromised frozen food items. Visit the Food and Drug Administration’s cite as noted above to find out if you even need to be concerned. The most concerning factor of the outbreak at hand is that it is a long time coming and brands participating in the recall keep being added to the mix. You may have already purchased these products over a year ago or recently and still have them in your freezer because of their long shelf life. When in doubt, double check! You may want to keep an eye out on upcoming updates on if any other brands are continually being added to the recall. It is best to keep a list of items you have ingested to see if any of these may tie to the recall later.
  • Refrain from consumption. If you have found products that match (or you believe match) those mentioned by the Food and Drug Administration, do not eat them! Do not eat them even if you have already eaten from the bag or if they look perfectly safe. Even a little bit of listeria can cause illness. If you want to keep the item for any reason, use gloves and place it in an airtight plastic bag and tape the top of it, to ensure nothing can come into contact with it and become contaminated.
  • Be on the lookout. If you or anyone you love is exhibiting signs or symptoms of a listeria infection, it is encouraged to seek medical attention. It is good to maintain vigilance for a while, as these symptoms can manifest from a few days to up to two months. Be especially weary of fevers and gastrointestinal problems.
  • Wash everything. Wash the kitchen’s food preparation areas, countertops, etc. Wash your hands, and often. Sanitize your dishes. If you are as paranoid as I am, even wash out your refrigerator and freezer, preferably with bleach-like solutions. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration recommends you “sanitize them [the aforementioned areas] with a solution of one tablespoon of chlorine bleach to one gallon of hot water; then dry with a clean cloth or paper towel that has not been previously used.” As previously noted, listeria is a hardy bacteria, which means it is prone to staying for long periods of time. Listeria grows in refrigeration temperatures and can cross contaminate other food cut and served in the same area. Wash now. Wash often. If someone in the household is ill with listeria poisoning, be especially vigilant in washing bathrooms and any soiled materials – including bedding, clothing, and hands.
  • Let your friends, coworkers, neighbors, family, even your mailman know about this outbreak. The more people who know, the easier it is to ensure less people become stricken with infection. Retailers, such as Costco and Walmart, have posted notifications on their websites about the current recall. As they say, knowledge is power. Together, we can try to help others dodge infection.

If you or anyone you know frequently shops at Costco, and has not received a notification or call from them about potentially compromised products related to the Costco Listeria outbreak, it does not hurt to still check the listing of products included in the recalls and take necessary steps to protect yourself and others.

[1] http://www.Food and Drug Administration.gov/Food/RecallsOutbreaksEmergencies/Outbreaks/ucm499157.htm#Specific