Even though officials don't know how listeria, a form of potentially deadly bacteria, got into some cartons of pasteurized milk, Kohler Mix Specialties is reopening its White Bear Lake processing plant today, two weeks after it was closed in the midst of a recall.
"We have not found the smoking gun," said Gregg Ostrander, president and chief executive of Michael Foods, which owns Kohler. But after two weeks of intensive cleaning, inspecting and retraining, he said, the company believes that the plant is safe to start production again.
Officials disclosed Tuesday that, in all, they found nine cartons of milk that were tainted with listeria. All of them had the telltale smell of spoiled milk.
"That might very well be a blessing in this case," said Doug Engebretson, assistant director of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Because of the smell, he said, it's unlikely that anyone would have consumed it. Some of the cartons were leaking.
There are still no confirmed cases of illnesses associated with the recalled milk. Listeria can cause a flulike illness called listeriosis, which is especially dangerous in newborns, pregnant women and people with serious illnesses such as cancer or AIDS, who have suppressed immune systems.
Kohler, which processes milk for Kemps, Land O'Lakes and other brands, originally recalled just 10-ounce cartons of 2-percent milk after a customer complained that a container of milk seemed spoiled, and officials discovered that it was contaminated with listeria.
On Feb. 6, the recall was expanded when a second customer complaint led to the discovery of another sample of contaminated milk. The recall included all milk products made on the production line, for a total of about 375,000 gallons, all bearing the plant code PLT 27-416 on the top seal of the cartons.
Ostrander said the plant was closed Feb. 4. Since then, inspectors have taken 87 samples from around the plant and found listeria in six locations: under equipment, in a drain and on the floor. None was directly in the "production zone," Engebretson said. But they still don't know how it contaminated the milk, which had been pasteurized.
Listeria, he said, is commonly found in the environment, especially in the vicinity of raw milk. So the challenge for processors is to build barriers to keep it away from the finished product.
Ostrander said the company has worked closely with state and federal inspectors, as well as private consultants, to sanitize the plant and to uncover potential trouble spots.
"A recall of this nature for listeria is something we regret having happened and certainly do not want to see in the future," he said.
He said that the company has always spot-tested products for listeria and other contaminants, but that it will increase the number of cartons routinely tested before they're shipped. He said the company also has been retraining employees and supervisors in how to keep the production line free of contamination.
Said Engebretson: "I think that all the reasonable measures have been taken." He said that the Agriculture Department will continue to monitor the plant closely, and that it will have inspectors on the scene when production resumes today.
-- For information about the recall, Kohler has a toll-free hot line: 1-800-446-0994. For health questions about listeria, the Minnesota Department of Health can be reached at 612-676-5414.