Raley’s announced this weekend it was removing frozen Dr. Praeger’s California Veggie Burgers from its Sacramento-area grocery stores over concerns the burgers might be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, a food-borne bacteria that can pose a serious threat to young children, pregnant women and older people.
On Saturday, the West Sacramento-based company called and emailed customers enrolled in its Something Extra loyalty program who it thinks might have bought the burgers.
“We received notification from the food product manufacturers about a potential case of listeria,” Raley’s spokeswoman Chelsea Minor said in an email. “Customers are encouraged to throw the product away.”
Though not as well known as its cousins salmonella and E. coli, Listeria has been causing a lot of problems lately.
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Costco and Trader Joe’s stores recently pulled food from the shelves because of possible listeria contamination. And experts have been trying to figure out where the bacteria is coming from. Normally found in soil, listeria has been making its way into the nation’s food supply.
“We’re trying to understand how the listeria got there in the first place,” said Trevor Suslow, a researcher at UC Davis.
One theory is that the use of natural fertilizers on organic farms, such as fish emulsions, could be a culprit, he said.
The scientific detective work is important because, even though listeria hasn’t been a major health problem in the past, it’s likely to become one as the huge population of baby boomers ages, Suslow said. Older people are especially susceptible to listeria poisoning.
“As that sector of society grows, so will the potential for serious and large outbreaks,” the UC Davis scientist said.
So far, eight cases of listeria have been identified in the United States that are a result of the most recent contamination problems, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Six of the cases were in California.
Symptoms include fever, chills, headache and nausea. The bacteria can cause stillbirths or miscarriages. In those with weakened immune systems, it can invade the nervous system and cause meningitis or brain infection. A CDC study of listeria cases from 2009 to 2011 showed 21 percent of 1,651 nationwide cases were fatal.
Sacramento County has recorded eight cases of illnesses from listeria since it started keeping records in 2012, said Dr. Olivia Kasirye, the county’s health officer.
Unlike other food-borne pathogens, listeria prefers damp, cold environments and can grow and multiply in some refrigerated foods. Unpasteurized milk and deli meats are especially dangerous. The bacteria can be killed by high heat.
Last month, a large and wide-ranging recall spurred retailer Costco to voluntarily remove frozen vegetables and fruits from all seven of its stores in the Sacramento region.
That recall, announced in April, has expanded to include 42 brands involving 358 vegetable products sourced from a CRF Frozen Foods plant in Pasco, Wash.
The recalled products pulled from local Costco shelves carried the brand names Organic by Nature, Columbia River Organics and Farmer’s Bounty and included corn, edamame, raspberries, potatoes, kale, cherries and peas.
In a separate recall, Trader Joe’s removed its Trader Joe’s Broccoli Slaw & Kale Salad with White Chicken Meat from shelves at its seven stores in the Sacramento region, said Alison Mochizuki, the chain’s spokeswoman. The recall followed a U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service announcement that sunflower seeds used in the product may have been contaminated with listeria.
On Friday, Dr. Praeger’s Sensible Foods of Elmwood, N.J., said it was recalling a number of its frozen veggie burgers and bean burgers because ingredients came from the plant in Washington identified as the source of listeria.
“This voluntary action is being undertaken in cooperation with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration because the recalled products contain vegetables that are part of the recent CRF Frozen Foods recall,” the company said in a news release.
Exactly how such foods become tainted with listeria remains the subject of scientific investigation.
Listeria may be finding its way into processing facilities from farms where the bacteria multiplies in soil, decaying vegetation and irrigation ditches, Suslow said.
Fish emulsions used as natural fertilizers may help listeria thrive, he said. When the fertilizer is diluted with irrigation water and applied to farmland, it can contaminate fruits and vegetables, he said.
The genetic fingerprint from a prior listeria outbreak led CDC researchers to CRF Frozen Foods, CDC spokeswoman Kate Fowlie said. They established that the bacteria was a longtime resident at the plant, she said.
Wherever food came into contact with equipment at the plant became a possible vector for the listeria outbreak, experts said.
“Once you bring listeria into a facility, it’s really good at getting itself established, and it could do so, literally, for decades,” Suslow said.