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Salmonella In Cereal? How?

Posted in Outbreaks & Recalls,Salmonella on September 2, 2018

Salmonella in Cereal? It seems that no food is immune to foodborne illness.  Including the unsuspecting breakfast cereal.  This has been the hard reality for those involved in the current Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal implicated Salmonella outbreak.

The Outbreak

So far 130 people across 36 different states have fallen ill with Salmonella mbandaka.  Almost a third of those reported in the outbreak required hospitalization.  Honey Smacks cereal has been implicated as the probable source for this outbreak due to overwhelming patient interviews.  A strong 85% of those interviewed indicated they ate cold cereal in the week before they became ill.  Well over half of those who ate cereal indicated Kellogg’s Honey Smacks specifically.  Of all those interviewed, Honey Smack’s was discussed as the cereal they eat more often than any other cereal.

Harmless breakfast cereal should be the safest food you can feed your family, right.  We know meat gets exposed to dangerous gut bacteria.  Improperly washed fruits and vegetables can carry harmful bacteria from the environment.  Unpasteurized dairy products and juices hold an inherent risk of foodborne illness.  But cereal?  How?

Curiosity gets the best of me so I explored one of my favorite resources, “How Stuff Works.”  I got some answers that I expected, and one that I didn’t want to know.  You know the saying, “Don’t ask questions you don’t want answers to.”  Well…  I asked.

According to professor Hendrik Den Bakker, Ph.D. of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety, “It can get into food through ingredients, and through the processing environment.”  I will explain another more shocking route of contamination in a bit.

Ingredients.  It All Starts Somewhere.

Manufacturers have a great responsibility when it comes to sanitary practices to prevent foodborne illness. Sourcing ingredients from reputable distributors and companies is also part of this.  In fact, there is legislation in place that requires this key factor.  But sometimes something goes wrong.  Sometimes an ingredient used in the manufacturing process comes with some uninvited guests.  In some cases, the uninvited guest is Salmonella.

A similar situation involving contaminated dry whey powder affected several products, such as Ritz Cracker varieties and Pepperidge Farm Goldfish varieties.  Even though the manufactures did nothing wrong, their products still put consumers at risk due to the ingredients used.  Thankfully the ingredient manufacturer, Associated Milk Producers, Inc identified the issue early and recalled their product.  This prompted many other recalls of products using that dry whey powder as an ingredient.

The food manufacturer must keep an eye out for recalls of the products they use to make their own product so that action can be taken as quickly as possible in the event something like what happened with the dry whey protein affects the safety of their product.

The investigation is still ongoing for this product recall and outbreak, so do not know yet if this was the cause of the outbreak or something else, such as manufacturing contamination.

Manufacturing Contamination.  One Bad Apple Spoils the Whole Lot.

Outside influence aside, contamination woes can also be brought about by poor in-house practices.  Contaminated equipment, facility problems, and infected people could all contribute to spoiling the product.  It is true that one bad apple can spoil the whole lot.  One wrong move could have dire consequences that can not only affect the integrity of the product, but send countless people to the hospital, or worse yet, the morgue.

Contaminated equipment can occur when equipment is not properly cleaned between batches.  Bacteria can grow and be transferred onto the next batch, contaminating otherwise safe food products to pathogenic levels.  Required decontamination procedures and check-back mechanisms to ensure that it is done appropriately and effectively is just one way a manufacturer can avoid foodborne illness outbreak and costly product recall due to contaminated equipment.

Sometimes a facility can become contaminated.  When gross contamination occurs, everything must be shut down and cleaned to ensure low level bacteria counts do not creep up and move into food products.

Other manufacturing errors involve a breakdown in processes.  For example, if a product should be heated to a specific temperature to make it shelf-stable, and the temperature is not reached, the product will likely be unsafe to consume.  If appropriate sealing is necessary to make the product shelf-stable, and this does not occur properly, the product will likely be unsafe to consume.  Each of these scenarios may be responsible for a foodborne illness outbreak and costly product recall.

Sick Employees.  When Sharing Isn’t Caring.

People working with food have a social responsibility to not spread their germs onto food products that will be consumed by others, let alone the public.  Most states and local jurisdictions have mandatory reporting for communicable illness in food workers.  This involves not directly working with or serving food and depending on the illness a time period of all clear note from a doctor.

Poor handwashing is the number one way this type of illness is spread from person to person. Most foodborne illness is transmitted fecal-oral.  That is a polite way of saying that poop gets moved from where it should stay onto a food product or surface that cross-contaminates it to another person who will consume it.  Appropriate handwashing prevents this spread of illness.

When sick employees infect a food product, several levels of safeguards that rest on the shoulders of humans falls through.  The employee does not report.  The supervisor is not aware that the employee is sick.  Finally, the sick employee does not take measures to prevent the spread of illness.

Critters Spread Illness

Rats, roaches, other creepy crawlies.  While they may not carry illness themselves, they track bacteria like Salmonella every where their creepy little legs take them.  They move in the nooks and crevices where it is difficult to clean and spread around potentially harmful bacteria that might make its way into food products.  This is especially difficult to control in outdoor environments such as farm distribution centers.

Indoor facilities should have a pest control plan that is active and maintained to prevent critters from infesting the facility.  This is particularly important in facilities that manufacture ready-to-eat foods, such as cereal.  No one washes their cereal.  It isn’t even an option.  A food-safe pest control plan is important to maintain the safety of the products the manufacturer produces.

What Can I Do?

You can’t just avoid everything.  Sadly, even if you made your own food and ensure sanitation throughout the process, you would still be unable to prevent contaminated ingredients.  So what can you do?  Pay attention to recalls and make decisions accordingly.  Check out MakeFoodSafe.com regularly for updated recalls to be sure that you are not feeding your family potentially dangerous food.  MakeFoodSafe.com also posts helpful information about food safety and topics in the news.  Check back often so you don’t miss a thing.

By: Heather Van Tassell, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)