When Blue Bell was involved in another Listeria recall, ice cream lovers everywhere panicked. However, it was quickly divulged that the cookie dough supplier instead was to blame. The supplier, Aspen Hills, has since answered the warning letter sent to them by the FDA, and their response may be a bit surprising. Aspen Hills has recently announced that they are closing down. The Aspen Hills facility in Garner, Iowa had already ceased operations in December, and many procedural changes had been made in the facility following its connection to a series of cookie dough related recalls. These changes were not enough to stave off an FDA warning letter, which had given the company 15 business days to respond. A spokesperson for Aspen Hills, Jon Austin, released a statement shortly thereafter that said: “After much consideration, our owners have decided to end their involvement in the company and are actively looking to wind up their affairs through a sale or other orderly disposition.” The statement also announced that “While that process is underway, we have ceased production as of the end of December.” The cookie dough company thanked the FDA for its oversight and professionalism throughout the investigation.
The closing of Aspen Hills is a result of the warning letter issued to the company on January 10 by the FDA. The warning letter was issued because of the presence of Listeria monocytogenes bacteria at one of the company’s facilities. The Aspen Hills facility, which is located in Iowa, was visited by FDA officials between September 27 and October 6, 2016. Over the course of the investigation, health officials took samples from various areas around the production facility. They received samples positive for Listeria contamination from several different areas, including on ladders, pallet jacks, various baskets, and other areas that deal with the making and packaging of frozen cookie dough products. Samples taken from the cookie dough itself was also positive for Listeria monocytogenes. Because of the presence of Listeria bacteria in both the facility’s environment and the finished products, the FDA has urged Aspen Hills to take more aggressive action against these contaminations. The FDA acknowledged previous responses from Aspen Hills regarding the Listeria contamination but charged that not enough has been done to resolve the issue.
This warning letter comes on the heels of a series of recalls from last year that were linked to Aspen Hills. In September 2016, Blue Bell and other ice cream brands were forced to recall a number of products due to the presence of Listeria bacteria. It has now become clear that the source of the contamination was Aspen Hills and not the companies that bought raw cookie dough from them. The subsequent FDA investigation narrowed the source of the contamination down to Aspen Hills. This investigation led to the series of correspondence that culminated in the January 10 warning letter. Aspen Hills had issued a recall on October 10, 2016, after they were linked to the Blue Bell contamination. Cookie dough products affected by the recall were made between February 2 and September 7, 2016, and were shipped to retailers and other companies in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia, Texas, and Tennessee. Due to the frozen nature of these products, it may still be possible that the contaminated cookie dough could be found in the freezers of consumers. More information about the recall can be found here.
Listeria monocytogenes bacteria first became known as a foodborne illness in 1981. After a major outbreak in Canada, the bacteria began to receive much more attention, leading to the CDC deciding to track Listeria infections shortly after this outbreak. In the 1990s, most Listeria monocytogenes outbreaks were caused by deli meats and hot dogs.Listeria infections have been caused by a wide variety of products since then, including unpasteurized juices and milk, the products made with these raw liquids, sprouts, and other vegetables, and smoked seafood. Even still, deli meats continue to be a leading cause of Listeria outbreaks. The CDC now estimates that there are about 1600 cases of illness caused each year by Listeria bacteria, leading to about 260 deaths per year. There are several risk factors that make an individual more likely to develop a Listeria infection. Newborns, older adults, and people with suppressed immune systems are all at an increased risk. Pregnant women are also about 10 times more likely to develop a Listeria infection. Listeria monocytogenes bacteria are an especially dangerous form of foodborne pathogen. They have the ability to survive and even thrive, in very cold environments. This means that freezing the bacteria will neither kill them nor will it hamper their growth. This was seen in the Blue Bell outbreak in 2015, in which 10 people were sickened with Listeria poisoning after consuming frozen ice cream. Because Listeria bacteria has also been linked to numerous raw products, including sprouts and raw milk, the CDC recommends that the only way to properly remove Listeria bacteria is to cook products thoroughly. This makes it especially important to cook meats to an internal temperature of 160 in order to prevent the survival of any contamination.
The testing process for a Listeria infection is a simple tissue sample used to foster the growth of a bacterial culture. If Listeria is seen in the developed culture, then the individual who provided the sample has tested positive for a Listeria infection. This infection is usually treated with antibiotics. The Listeria poisoning itself may not produce symptoms for up to two months after the infection, although symptoms usually present within 3-10 days. Listeria infections often produce similar symptoms to other foodborne illnesses, including fever and diarrhea. However, if the infection becomes invasive, meaning it has left the gastrointestinal system, the symptoms can worsen. In pregnant women with invasive Listeria, fever, fatigue, muscle aches, and diarrhea are all common symptoms. However, Listeria has been known to cause miscarriage, stillbirth, infection in newborns, or premature delivery. In individuals with invasive Listeria who are not pregnant, fever, diarrhea, headache, stiff neck, confusion, convulsions, loss of balance, and muscle aches are all common symptoms. If you or a loved one begin to show the symptoms of Listeria poisoning, contact a medical professional.