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 Listeria Tainted Meat Death Toll Rises To 16 -
Experts Perplexed

Feb 4, 1999
       WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Amid a still-rising death toll from  listeria-tainted hot dogs and lunch meat, a consumer group Thursday demanded that the U.S. Agriculture Department require companies to test the riskiest foods for the fatal disease. Listeria, a relatively unknown foodborne disease, has been a focus of media attention in recent weeks with a string of outbreaks reported in U.S. delicatessen meats, milk and other refrigerated products that do not need cooking.
At least 16 deaths have been blamed on Sara Lee Corp hot dogs and lunch meat since August, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which raised the death toll Wednesday. The agency is monitoring the outbreak in 14 states. The spate of recent cases has puzzled regulators, who say there is no obvious reason to account for the increase. One immediate step that should be taken, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, is to require listeria testing by companies of the riskiest food products. "We need better testing of ready-to-eat foods that consumers do not cook," said Caroline Smith De Waal, a food safety analyst with the center. "We
are going to ask the USDA to require companies to start this testing for hot dogs, lunch meat, cold cuts and other high-risk foods."
The USDA and the Food and Drug Administration now conduct random testing for listeria. The USDA regulates meat and poultry, while the FDA is responsible for other foods. Listeria typically
affects only infants, unborn babies, the elderly and others with weak immune systems. While less common than the foodborne diseases campylobacter or salmonella, 20 percent of those who get sick from listeria die. Since December, Sara Lee Corp has recalled an estimated 35 million pounds of hog dogs and luncheon meat, but expects to actually retrieve only about 15 million pounds. Hormel Foods Corp, Thorn Apple Valley and grocery store chain Winn-Dixie recently recalled products because of suspected listeria. Tuesday, single-serve cartons of milk sold under the Land O'Lakes brand were also recalled. The USDA described the recent outbreaks across the United States as "unfortunate" and said the illnesses "present an opportunity to strengthen control efforts from farm to table."
The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service has scheduled a public meeting Wednesday to take a closer look at how to prevent listeria and ways to improve company recalls. High on the list is a review of how the USDA randomly samples ready-to-eat products like lunch meat and industry procedures for recalling meat suspected of contamination. The USDA said it would also look at how
companies use "sell-by" dates on meat and poultry labels. Lester Crawford, a former head of the FSIS, said the outbreaks were especially startling because the Centers for Disease Control        determined in 1994 that the industry had successfully reduced listeria contamination. The outbreak comes at a time when the Clinton administration has launched a series of food safety measures,
including new requirements that meat plants adopt science-based safety checkpoints. Last week, the FDA's Center for Food Safety ranked listeria as one of its top priorities for research in 1999. Food
safety experts urged the USDA to take a look at whether companies have extended the shelf life of their products too long, which might promote the growth of listeria. The department also needs to closely inspect equipment at meat plants and determine if listeria may be spreading inadvertently through some new processes or through air contamination.

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