When ice cream kills

Story highlights

  • Recent massive recalls of contaminated hummus and ice cream products are worrisome
  • Barry Estabrook: It's in the best interest of companies to set high safety measures for consumers

Barry Estabrook is the author of "Pig Tales: An Omnivore's Quest for Sustainable Meat," which will be released in May. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)When you savor a lick of your favorite ice cream or swipe a carrot through a tasty dip, you don't expect to be putting your life in the line.

Yet this month's massive recalls of food that may have been contaminated with the deadly bacteria Listeria monocytogenes suggest you could be.
First, Virginia-based Sabra Dipping Company recalled 30,000 cases of its Classic Hummus after samples tested positive for the bacteria.
    Then, Texas-based Blue Bell Creamery, the third largest maker of ice cream in the United States, recalled all of its products from more than 20 states after reports of three deaths and several illnesses in Kansas, Texas, Arizona and Oklahoma were linked to listeria in its popular frozen confections. Most recently, Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams of Ohio recalled all of its products and closed its scoop shops when Listeria was detected in samples.
    Barry Estabrook
    Listeria can cause bacterial meningitis, an infection of the covering of the brain and spinal cord that causes headaches, confusion and convulsions. It kills about one in six of those infected. Children, the elderly, people with depressed immune systems and pregnant women are most vulnerable.
    The recalls could be seen as more evidence of the dysfunction of the country's food safety system.
    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food-borne illness sickens 48 million Americans each year, puts 128,000 in the hospital and kills 3,000. Or, on a more optimistic note, they could be evidence that the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law in 2011, is starting to work as it should.
    Part of the FSMA calls for greater cooperation between the federal Food and Drug Administration, which is charged with protecting Americans' health, and state agencies.
    Through that effort, officials in South Carolina discovered the Blue Bell contamination during a routine inspection of a distribution center. The Sabra contamination came to light following tests on a random sample of hummus taken from a supermarket and tested by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. The Nebraska Department of Agriculture discovered the Jeni's contamination.
    Without such federal and state efforts, the outbreaks could have continued undetected for much longer.
    The swift, contrite reaction of Blue Bell and Sabra executives might also have been influenced by a new get-tough attitude of the FDA, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Justice, which have begun prosecuting violators of food safety regulations with a degree of vigor not seen before the passage of the FSMA.
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    In January 2014, Eric and Ryan Jensen, the two Colorado farmers whose listeria-contaminated cantaloupe killed 33 consumers in an outbreak that spread to 28 states in 2011, were sentenced to five years probation and six months of home detention in addition to having to pay restitution of $150,000 each and to perform 100 hours of community service.
    Last fall, a federal jury convicted two brothers, Stewart and Michael Parnell, both executives at the Peanut Corporation of America, of more than 70 felony counts including conspiracy and fraud after salmonella bacteria in peanut products from the company's processing plant in Georgia sickened 700 people and killed nine.
    They were the first food company executives to be convicted of felony charges related to food safety violations in America. The Parnell brothers await sentencing, but they could spend the rest of their lives in prison.
    And this month, an Iowa judge sent a stern message to food producers when he sentenced Austin "Jack" DeCoster and his son, Peter DeCoster, to three months in jail and a year's probation (in addition to levying fines totaling $7 million against the men and their company, Quality Egg, which had farms in Iowa and Maine) for introducing adultered food into interstate commerce. In 2010, the company recalled more than 500 million eggs after a salmonella outbreak that sickened 2,000 people.
    But beyond the specter of criminal records, jail time and big fines, the cost of extensive recalls -- in terms of dollars and lasting damage a brand's reputation -- can prompt producers to clean up their food safety acts.
    Bill Marler, a lawyer with the Seattle firm Marler Clark, which specializes in litigating on behalf of victims of food poisoning, told me that the current rash of recalls remind him of the 1990s, when ground beef producers were forced to revamp their sanitation practices after a series of poisonings from Escherichia coli bacteria.
    Today, we don't worry much about E. coli contaminated meat. With the right precautions, the same could true of ice cream, hummus, and other products tainted with listeria.