Controlled Environments reported on several high-profile food-based outbreaks in 2015. Fast food chain Chipotle certainly had a rough year — and so did the more than 300 people who were sickened by the restaurant’s E. coli and norovirus outbreaks. A pharmacist in Washington State has sued the restaurant chain after its food made her ill, Chipotle’s stock prices have plunged, and customers are leaving in droves. And now Chipotle is under criminal investigation in California, having recently received a grand jury subpoena as part of a probe by the U.S. Department of Justice and the FDA. Executives are closing restaurants, calling meetings, and scrambling to figure out how to bounce back and regain public trust.
Meanwhile, Blue Bell has been dealing with its own problems after three people died in 2015, allegedly after eating Listeria-contaminated ice cream. An FDA report released in May showed that Blue Bell was aware of its contamination issues as early as 2013. The report detailed the improper cleaning and sanitization practices at the company’s Oklahoma plant. Shoe covers were not worn, gloves were not changed, and condensation was observed dripping into the product.
Another major story concerned the former owner of a Georgia peanut company receiving a sentence of 28 years in prison — the harshest criminal penalty ever for a U.S. producer in a food-borne illness case — for his role in a Salmonella outbreak that resulted in the deaths of nine people, and the sickening of hundreds more. The Peanut Corporation of America’s food broker and quality control manager received shorter sentences. Their punishments were a result of defrauding corporate customers such as Kellogg’s, which turned the company’s peanuts and peanut butter into finished products. Emails were recovered proving that the CEO knew of the contaminated product but instructed that it be shipped anyway. A February 2009 FDA report cited dirty air filters, rainwater dripping from the leaky roof into the product, and rodent droppings. Some batches were sent to customers despite testing positive for Salmonella; other batches weren’t tested at all, but were accompanied by fake lab reports stating that they were clean.
Researchers are firing back with new advancements. Nanotubes have been used to create sensors that can sniff out spoiled meats, which is a quicker alternative to bulky equipment that cannot churn out such fast results. Plant essential oils such as those from thyme, oregano, and clove have a strong antimicrobial effect but they have low solubility in water, so nanoemulsion methods are being explored to get them to work properly. Researchers in China and California are developing a 3D-printed sensor that can detect rotten food in both the laboratory and the home.
However, common sense may be the best possible start to combating this issue. Manufacturers need to maintain clean facilities and equipment, and keep the public’s health — rather than its own profit — in mind. Harsh prison sentences and the loss of customers may also make other food manufacturers realize that, while it may initially cost less to “ship it anyway,” they (and others) are just going to suffer in the long run.
This Letter from the Editor appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of Controlled Environments.