Outbreak

Could A Lethal Bacteria Get Into Our Food System?

Last summer, a little known bacteria spread mysteriously through the northeast. Within weeks eight people were dead and scores more violently ill. Before long health officials announced what doctors had feared: it was an outbreak.

Investigators and scientists launched a medical manhunt to track down the source. They discovered it was a bacteria called listeria monocytogenes, spread through contaminated food. More rare than E. coli or salmonella, it is also more deadly - particularly for the elderly and pregnant women. And what the investigators uncovered shed light not only on the rare and deadly bacteria, but on the very safety of America's meat supply. Vicki Mabrey reports.

One August afternoon, Frank Niemtzow, a retired doctor living in Philadelphia, suddenly became dizzy at a family gathering. He passed out and was rushed to the emergency room, according to his son Stuart.

Within days, there were reports of other mysterious cases in the area, people seized by paralyzing fevers, nausea, delirium. Blood tests showed they all had the same rare disease: Listeriosis.

Scientists in Pennsylvania pinpointed the cause as listeria, a bacteria that is spread through contaminated food. It kills one in five of its victims. But the growing number suggested something even more frightening: an outbreak that was steadily infecting more people. They called the Centers for Disease control in Atlanta.

"This is a deadly disease and people were starting to die," says Dr. Sami Gottlieb, a CDC disease detective who tried to find the source of the outbreak. "We got right on a plane and flew up to Philadelphia."

They interviewed those who had come down with the disease, and those around them. "We went to people's homes and just asked them everything; everything that they did, everything that they had eaten, all about their life. We went through their refrigerators piece by piece, every piece of food."

Dr. Gottlieb knew that in each victim's kitchen was the clue that could save other lives. Unlike salmonella or E. coli, listeria is a more difficult mystery, since it can remain hidden in the bloodstream for more than a month - enough time to erase any clues.

"It's difficult to remember what you ate two days ago, let alone 30 days ago," Gottlieb says. "And we tried every tack we could to get people to remember. We got out calendars. We had them get their checkbooks, their credit card receipts, their grocery store receipts, their computerized shopper cards, anything we could do to help them remember."

From the field, Dr. Gottlieb and her team sent listeria samples back to Dr. Bala Swaminathan in his laboratory at the CDC.

Each strain of listeria leaves behind its own distinct DNA fingerprint. To uncover it, scientists first strip the bacteria's DNA and implant it into a gel. An ultraviolet light reveals the sample's unique genetic pattern.

When Dr. Swaminathan compared the fingerprint from the Philadelphia cases to samples from other labs across the country, he discovered something alarming: The outbreak was spreading.

"When you get into an outbreak situation you can see identical patterns from all of the people involved in that outbreak," he says.

Within a month of the first Philadelphia death, there were almost 50 cases in nine states: a baby in New York, an elderly man in Massachusetts, a woman in New Jersey who passed it on to her newborn son. Seven people died, and three women had suffered miscarriages.

Increasingly desperate, Dr. Gottlieb's team worked around the clock, using computer programs and elaborate statistics to determine the common denominator, the one food that every single victim had eaten. As they closed in on the killer, the process of elimination pointed to one suspect.

"What we found fairly conclusively was that turkey deli meat was the source of the outbreak. So that was really satisfying. And then it became difficult again because after we knew it was turkey, the next question becomes where did that turkey come from?" Gottlieb says.

Vince Erthal says he immediately suspected the source of the outbreak had to be a poultry processing plant. As an inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for almost 20 years, he says he saw the kind of conditions that can breed bacteria in a plant he started working at in 2000. Inside meat processing plants, he's seen it all: "algae growth, moldy calking, condensation in overhead pipes, rusty equipment."

"Actually touching the meat?" Mabrey asked him.
"Yes, yes, it was horrendous," he says.
"Why is moldy caulking, algae and condensation a problem?" she asked him.
"This is a food plant. That whole facility, the whole room should be clean, sanitized," he answered.

According to scientists, listeria in particular can thrive in the cold and wet environment of meat processing plants.

Investigators suspected a processing plant might have led to the contaminated turkey. To find out which one, they went shopping.

"After we knew it was turkey, there were teams that went into more than 70 delis. So what we did was for each patient, we made a list of all the possible products that might have been in the deli when they bought their turkey meat," says Gottlieb.

They passed on the list of the top ten suspected manufacturers to the USDA to conduct extensive testing at those plants. Within days, Dr. Swaminathan and his team had more results.

The outbreak strain was found at two plants – in a food sample at JL Poultry in Camden, N.J. and in the drains at Wampler Foods in Franconia, Pennsylvania. And while investigators couldn't directly attribute the deaths to either plant, they believed one or both were the most likely sources of the outbreak.

The discovery led to one of the largest meat recalls in U.S. history – 28 million pounds. It was not at all surprising to Erthal. He worked inside the Wampler Plant for two and a half years.

"I seen it coming. I've been warning the plant for years," he says. "My first day at Wampler I just could not believe it," he says. "It was horrendous. It was horrendous. The conditions - I've been to approximately 150 different plants throughout this country, as an inspector, and I have never seen a plant as bad as that." The Wampler plant, he says, was "By far the worst."

Erthal says he filed reports documenting different kinds of violations. he says what he saw could explain how listeria in drains, for example, could possibly contaminate food.

Says Erthal: "From my observations, on numerous occasions, people, employees, would drop product on the floor near the drains that clogged up and put it back on the line. I seen employees hose down their drain and the splash from the drain would go onto fully cooked turkey breasts. These are my observations."

While 60 Minutes II wasn't given access to Erthal's reports, other people who worked at Wampler said they saw a number of the same things. 60 Minutes II asked Wampler for an interview, but Wampler officials declined the request.

Instead they sent 60ii, a letter in which they claim Erthal's allegations of repeated problems were undocumented by him. They also emphasize that "no Wampler product to our knowledge has ever tested positive for the strain identified in the outbreak." They also suggest the outbreak may have other sources.

Wampler acknowledged that its own testing turned up positive results for generic strains of listeria in the plant. And while the company claims that's to be expected, because listeria is common in the environment, the Department of Agriculture says those results should have raised a red flag. Complicating matters further, the plant and other plants like it were not required to report those results to the USDA.

"It's a voluntary program. The plant, it was not obligated or responsible to address it to the USDA," he says.

Wampler says it did make the results available. But Elsa Murano, the USDA's Undersecretary for Food Safety, says the USDA never saw them. The USDA itself conducted only random sampling and at Wampler those results were always negative. Murano says she's asked the Inspector General to investigate Erthal's charges, and that if they're true she says there's much more he should have done.

"Our inspectors have the power, all the power that they need to suspend operations, to detain product, to seize product from the market. And there is no one more powerful than a USDA inspector in terms of what he or she can do at a meat and poultry processing plant," Murano says.

"I tried my best to perform my job to the best of my abilities," Erthal says. He says he feels responsible: "I was the inspector that was there. Should I have gone to Washington DC? Should I - I don't know. I don't know. But I gotta carry that weight on my shoulders the rest of my life."

"Do you feel like things have changed now? That maybe-- we've woken up to listeria?" Mabrey asked him.
"Nah," he said. "No. I think the USDA, the industry, has their work cut out for them."

Since the recall, Wampler says it has enhanced its sanitation and safety program – while maintaining that its overall record is a strong one. But in the last six months, other companies have announced nearly two dozen recalls of ready-to-eat meat products due to listeria. Thirty five people have died in the northeast alone – including Frank Neimtzow last November.

Dr. Gottlieb says the toll could have been worse: "We'll never know how many people we prevented from getting this disease by finding the turkey meat and having the USDA investigate these plants. But it felt good to know that we had gotten to the bottom of it."

Because of the outbreak, the USDA now promises to increase government testing for listeria unless plants start volunteering their results. But a proposal that would go much further has been under review for two years, and the USDA says it could be years more before its actually implemented.

  • David Kohn

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