Retailers notified of voluntary recalls issued by the manufacturers of hot dogs and luncheon meats possibly tainted with the Listeria monocytogenes bacterium say the items have been pulled from stores and they stand prepared to answer any consumer inquiry.
Very few consumers, however, are returning directly to stores asking "panicky" questions about the recalled products, retailers told SN.
"There hasn't been any kind of rush back to the stores from our customers," said Ruth Mitchell, assistant vice president of communications for Hy-Vee Stores, West Des Moine, Iowa. "When we were notified of the recall, we notified our stores and had them pull the [affected] products."
Likewise, an official for Boise, Idaho-based Albertson's reported that there was no store-level customer activity concerning the recalled products, which include hot dogs and deli meats manufactured by Sara Lee, Chicago; Oscar Mayer Corp., Madison, Wis.; and, most recently, Thorn Apple Valley, Southfield, Mich.
"Once we heard about the recall, we notified our distribution centers and our stores immediately, and our employees were instructed to pull and destroy any questionable product," said Albertson's corporate spokeswoman Jenny Enochson of the latest recall, involving Thorn Apple Valley.
Reports coming back from the majority of Albertson's distribution centers and stores cited "a very small amount" of product on the shelves, she said.
Investigators have been tracking the still-developing case since last summer, when reports of listeriosis began filtering in from around the country. To date, at least 12 people have died, and dozens more have been sickened by the bacteria, which can cause meningitis and other life-threatening illnesses.
The source of that segment of the outbreak has been traced to hot dogs and possibly deli meats made by Bil Mar Foods, a subsidiary of Chicago-based Sara Lee Corp. The production lines at Bil Mar's Zeeland, Mich., plant, where the products were manufactured, have been shut down since Dec. 22, when the recall was issued. The products bear the establishment numbers P261 and 6911.
"There is a nationwide listeriosis outbreak that is under investigation," said Beth Gaston, spokeswoman for the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington. "We are looking into that with [the Centers for Disease Control]. We are also now looking at our testing program to see what we should be doing, what we could be doing, and to determine what the big picture is [in light of these recent outbreaks]."
While the source of the outbreak cannot yet be determined, Gaston said the proliferation of Listeria-related recalls can be traced to a number of factors, including improved reporting techniques, better interagency cooperation between USDA and the Atlanta, Ga.-based CDC and more accurate testing for the bacteria.
While invetigators toil away in their attempt to pinpoint the cause of the outbreak, manufacturers of these products are wrestling with the impact of the recalls, and the ensuing negative publicity, all of which can be aggravated by the lack of guidance from federal investigators, according to some.
"Their typical approach is not to give you the solutions, but to tell you that they're not happy with the results, and you go back and do the investigation [to] figure out what needs to be done to improve the results," said Joel Dorfman, president of Thorn Apple Valley.
The USDA suspended operations at the company's Forrest City, Ark., plant in December, after five of 20 samples from batches of unshipped product tested positive for the Listeria bacteria. The items were produced after July 6, 1998, and bore the establishment numbers 13529 and P-13529. No illnesses to date have been attributed to Thorn Apple Valley products.
Since then, the company has been working with investigators to correct the problem. Dorfman said the plant's filtration system has already been changed and environmental studies have been conducted, but one area has been more difficult to alter.
"Most of the deficiencies that are pointed out to us deal with the human factor, and that's the most difficult part of the responsibility we have," he said. "We're dealing with human beings, and they're not going to be perfect every moment of every operating day."
The size of the Thorn Apple Valley recall is estimated by Dorfman to include one million pounds of product. Consumer press accounts, however, placed the number much higher -- 30 million pounds -- which would make it the largest recall in history, topping the 25 million pounds of ground beef withdrawn from sale in 1997 by now-defunct Hudson Foods, Rogers, Ark.
Earlier, Oscar Mayer had announced its voluntary recall of more than 28,000 pounds of luncheon meats on Jan. 15, after a report of consumer illness in Kansas City, Mo. FSIS investigators tested intact packages of the suspected meats, packaged as Oscar Mayer All American Variety Pack (10 oz.) and Oscar Mayer Club Sandwich Variety Pack (9 oz.).