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Listeria hysteria: Here’s what foods are affected, and why

April 10, 2015, 8:36 PM UTC

Two food manufacturers have recalled tens of thousands of cases of their products from stores nationwide after finding evidence of the potentially deadly bacterium listeria, in an outbreak that has already resulted in at least eight illnesses and three deaths.

Sabra Dipping Company was the latest food manufacturer to find evidence of the contamination, recalling 30,000 cases of its classic hummus. That follows Blue Bell’s first-ever recall after customers in Texas and Kansas fell ill due to listeria connected to its ice cream and other frozen snacks. So far, the Centers for Disease control has linked eight cases in the current outbreak to Blue Bell items; no cases officially have been linked back to Sabra.

Listeria is one of the most dangerous food-borne illnesses, especially for older adults, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems. It sickens about 1,600 Americans a year, causing fever and muscle aches and gastrointestinal problems. In 2012, 13% of patients sickened by listeria died, according to CDC statistics. That’s quite high when compared with a more common food-borne disease like salmonella, which kills less than 1% of infected patients.

Listeria outbreaks linked to specific food manufacturers or farms have been especially lethal. The deadliest outbreak was in 2011 when listeria-infected cantaloupes from Jensen Farms in Colorado killed 33 people and sickened another 140. Sabra and Blue Bell aren’t the only companies with recent listeria-connected recalls, either. Amy’s Kitchen, Wegmans Food Markets and Carmel Food Group have all recalled products this year over listeria concerns.

The constant lineup of recalls raises concerns that regulators at the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture are slipping on their duties to American citizens. Part of that may be due to a shortage in funding for food safety: Following the enactment of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in 2011, one of the biggest reforms to food safety laws in more than 70 years, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the FDA would need $580 million to carry out the reforms over four years. Congress allotted less than half that amount, about $162 million, for a five-year period.

The FSMA is designed to shift the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it. The burden currently falls on manufacturers to ensure a product’s safety–food companies are tasked with completing internal tests and then notifying the FDA if there are any issues. State-run agencies also conduct their own random food safety tests (which is how the Sabra contamination was found).

Regulatory agencies are working hard to police a more than $1 trillion industry with limited funds, potentially leaving more U.S. consumers vulnerable to food contamination problems. Each year, about 48 million Americans get sick due to food-borne illnesses, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die because of the exposure.

For more information about foods affected by the current outbreak, see Sabra’s recall announcement and Blue Bell’s recall announcement.