Turkey Franks Recall : Bacterial Infection Is Suspected

Times Staff Writer

A Waco, Tex.,-based food company has voluntarily recalled all brands of its turkey hot dogs--many of which are sold in Southern California--because of suspected bacterial contamination, federal officials announced.

The action, involving Plantation Foods Inc., became necessary after laboratory tests discovered the presence of Listeria monocytogenes in some of the firm's processed meat products.

Contributing to the recall decision was a Listeriosis illness linked to Plantation's hot dogs, federal officials state. A U.S. Department of Agriculture representative said the current case marks the first time a ready-to-eat meat product was associated with Listeriosis , a potentially fatal infection.

The company sells hot dogs under several different brand names including Plantation Turkey Franks, NIFDA Turkey Franks, CODE Turkey Franks and Nugget Turkey Franks. The products are sold in both one-pound packages in supermarkets and in 10-pound packages to institutional food service operations. Distribution of the affected items extends along a southern tier of states stretching from Georgia to Southern California.

Uncooked hot dogs, as well as undercooked chicken, have been identified by the Centers for Disease Control as high risk foods for potential Listeria monocytogenes contamination. The pathogen has also been found in coleslaw, soft cheese and other dairy products.

Reevaluating Its Policy

Based on these findings, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been monitoring both beef and poultry hot dogs for the contaminant on a regular basis since October, 1988. Under the program, manufacturers were given an opportunity to clean up their plants, without a recall, if any of their products were found to be contaminated with Listeria.

As a result of the recent illness, however, the USDA is reevaluating its policy, said Catherine E. Adams, Ph.D., with the Food Safety and Inspection Service in USDA.

"It is likely that our policy will be substantially modified," Adams said. "The premise had been that Listeria- contaminated processed meat had not caused human illnesses, nor even been associated with human illness. But this is a confirmed association (between hot dogs and) an illness."

Listeria monocytogenes was identified as the cause of more then 40 deaths, mostly stillborns, from improperly manufactured Mexican-style soft cheese in the Los Angeles area in 1985.

Those with weakened immune systems are considered to be at particular risk from Listeria. Included in this group are infants, pregnant women, the elderly and the chronically ill such as those suffering from cancer, AIDS and cirrhosis.

In fact, the woman who became infected in the recent incident was a 61-year-old cancer patient.

Normally, healthy people are at little risk from Listeria. When an infection develops, however, the symptoms typically include fever, chills, headache, backache, abdominal pain and diarrhea. CDC estimates that there are about 1,400 Listeriosis cases annually in this country with a 35% mortality rate.

"This is a disease that effects certain groups of people and we are trying to determine what recommendations to make to the public and to the food industry," said Anne Schuchat MD, medical epidemiologist with the CDC's meningitis and pathogens branch.

The important issue in the Plantation Foods case is the presence of a harmful bacteria in a ready-to-eat food. Although hot dog packaging recommends that people thoroughly heat the frankfurters, some individuals eat them cold or undercooked.

"The product--hot dogs--should be fully cooked by manufacturers and ready to eat as is," said Adams. "That is also something that is being reviewed."

Another area of concern in the current case is that the victim heated the turkey hot dog in a microwave oven.

"Maybe microwaves do not cook thoroughly enough to kill Listeria. This is an area worth looking at and that is in (our) plans," said CDC's Schuchat.

USDA's Adams also said that the effectiveness of microwaves is something that federal agencies, in general, need to explore in light of the recent Listeriosis case.

"We didn't think the cold spots in food after microwaving created a significant problem or a food safety problem. No agency did," she said.

Closed for Three Days

Once the Listeria discovery was made, Plantation's hot dog production line was closed for three days. The firm is now in the process of having the facility recertified by USDA as being free from the contaminant, said Lacy Roane Jr., chief executive officer. None of the firm's other products are effected by the recall, Roane said.

"Any (hot dog) they manufacture does not go out the door until it is analyzed as containing no Listeria monocytogenes, " said Adams.

USDA officials said that proper cooking of raw meat products as well as thorough reheating of processed meats, such as hot dogs, is sufficient protection from potentially harmful bacteria.

One meat industry representative said that the current recall and illness are isolated incidents and are nothing that should alarm the public.

"The industry is concerned about this and will do its best to improve and not allow it to happen again," said Stan Wallen, Ph.D., director of science and technology for the National Turkey Federation in Reston, Va. "But this is an extremely rare event."

Ready-to-eat foods such as hot dogs, Wallen said, are also closely regulated by the government and offer more protection than raw items such as meats or produce.

"We all assume that companies' pre-cooked foods are absolutely free of pathogens. But in reality there are pathogens that find their way into processed foods on rare occasions," he said.

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