As the recalls for precooked chicken products pile up, and public health officials scramble to piece them all together, food-safety experts warn a listeria outbreak linked to the meat is likely far-reaching and difficult to isolate.
A Minneapolis legal firm late Monday filed the first lawsuit related to an evolving and ongoing listeria outbreak likely linked to precooked chicken products produced at a Georgia plant over a 10-month time period.
The lawsuit, filed by food safety law firm Pritzker Hageman P.A., is the first known legal action from a person hospitalized after consuming these recalled products. It falls against the larger backdrop of a nationwide listeria monocytogenes outbreak still under investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Services (USDA-FSIS) that has so far counted 24 cases spanning 13 states.
Of those cases, 22 have resulted in hospitalizations and two people have died. Listeria is a particularly virulent foodborne pathogen; 1 out of 5 people infected with it will die. Listeria is especially dangerous to the elderly, immune-compromised, young children and pregnant women (it can lead to the loss of an unborn baby).
Two weeks ago, the USDA and Tip Top Poultry issued a massive recall of all ready-to-eat chicken products produced by the Georgia-based manufacturer between Jan. 21 and Sept. 24. Those products — which include frozen, cooked, diced and shredded chicken — were sold to an unknown number of other food companies that then packaged and sold the meat as a part of its own products.
"This is massive because it's all production from this one plant for nearly 10 months," said food-safety attorney Fred Pritzker. "I think this lawsuit is just the tip of the iceberg. I think many more will occur."
Since Tip Top's widespread recall was announced, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued several recalls in recent weeks for precooked, diced chicken products, including from three Minnesota firms that source meat from Tip Top.
St. Cloud-based Coborn's Inc. is recalling certain chicken salad, pasta, sandwiches, shredded meat and spreads sold at Coborn's, Cash Wise and Marketplace stores. St. Paul Park-based Northern Tier Bakery is recalling its SuperMom's and Hometown Kitchen chicken salad sandwiches sold at Speedway (previously called SuperAmerica) and other convenience stores. And Eden Prairie-based E.A. Sween Co. initiated a recall of chicken salad products under several brands — including Deli Fresh and Archer Farms, the Target Corp. private label brand.
The federal suit filed in Minnesota names four companies, including E.A. Sween, as defendants.
The CDC has not given an investigation update since before these recalls were initiated and has yet to publicly identify the source of the outbreak. "CDC and USDA-FSIS are working to determine if any of the chicken that was recalled could account for any U.S. illnesses in this outbreak," a CDC spokesman said Tuesday. He said the CDC may have an investigation update by next week.
Listeria is a challenging pathogen to trace because it can remain latent in a person for several weeks before symptoms arise. The more time that passes after consumption, the more difficult it is to trace the origin of the illness.
"Listeria has a particularly long incubation period," said Jeff Bender, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota. "Often with foodborne illness, we think about what we ate in the last 24 hours, but with listeria, you have to ask people what they ate three weeks ago."
Because of its virulence, the FDA has had a zero-tolerance policy toward listeria since 1985.
It's an organism that behaves differently from other foodborne pathogens, Bender said. "It grows in refrigerated foods and can create biofilms that make it tricky to clean. That biofilm is like a lattice structure where it can hide," he said.
Pritzker and his partner, Eric Hageman, are representing Craig Moraski, 50, of Nebraska, who was sickened last week after consuming pre-made chicken salad from a Sam's Club in suburban Omaha. Moraski has a genetic kidney disease, according to the complaint, and was hospitalized over the weekend after a blood sample came back positive for listeria. His doctor told him he is eligible for a kidney transplant as the organ is now only functioning at 20%.
The suit's four named defendants — Tip Top, E.A. Sween, the Suter Company Inc. and Sam's Club — were all a part of the supply chain of the recalled chicken salad he consumed.
Listeria thrives in cold, wet environments such as drains, cracks in walls or machines like those in a manufacturing facility. If not properly sanitized, the pathogen can colonize.
Once Tip Top identified its problem, the company temporarily shut down its plant in Georgia and brought in a third-party contractor to perform an intensified deep clean.
"With a proper sanitation program, you can control for listeria," Hageman said. "There are not that many listeria outbreaks because it is so dangerous and there is a focus on it. If you have an appropriate cleaning protocol in place it can be prevented. But we just have to trust that the food supply is safe and you can't always do that."