The food and beverage industry is very competitive so normally it’s great to make the top of any list … except when it comes to the worst food recalls of all time.
That is one list to avoid, but the listeria outbreak at Sara Lee just over two decades ago, unfortunately holds the top spot in the “Eat This, Not That!” rundown published this year of “The 7 Worst Food Recalls of All Time”.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that foodborne illness causes 48 million people to get sick each year, with 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths on average.
Researchers have identified more than 250 foodborne diseases; most of them are infections caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
Listeria was little known in 1998 when Sara Lee recalled around 15 million pounds of contaminated meat.
“Distributed from one Bil Mar plant, hot dogs and deli meats carrying the bacteria infected 101 people and caused six miscarriages and 15 deaths,” reported Eat This, Not That!
Fatal Listeria Outbreak Put Listeria in the News
The first case of listeriosis, the rare but potentially fatal bacterial disease caused by listeria, was documented almost 100 years ago in 1924, but knowledge of the disease is evolving with only 10 species of Listeria known in 1992.
By 2020, 21 species of Listeria had been identified and the public was now aware of the disease after the Sara Lee listeria outbreak.
“Few Americans paid much attention to Listeria until about 20 years ago when a fatal Listeria outbreak sickened 101 people in 10 states and resulted in a stunning 21 deaths, all from eating Ballpark hotdogs and Sara Lee Deli Meats,” wrote Food Safety News in 2017.
Listeria: Rare but Sometimes Life Threatening
Listeriosis can lead to hospitalization and death -- especially for pregnant women and their newborns, adults aged 65 or older, and people with weakened immune systems.
The illness is rare in other groups, but for those vulnerable groups it can prove deadly with the estimating 1,600 people sick each year, and 260 dying, from the listeria bacteria.
Food Safety News reminds people that:
- Food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes may not look or smell spoiled but can still cause serious and sometimes life-threatening infections.
- Anyone who has eaten any recalled products and developed symptoms of Listeria infection should seek medical treatment and tell their doctors about the possible Listeria exposure.
Possible symptoms of Listeria infection can include:
- Persistent fever
- Muscle aches
- Severe headache
- Neck stiffness
Listeria needs to be confirmed by a lab test because the disease can mimic other illnesses.
Anatomy of a Multistate Listeria Outbreak
The Sara Lee case is an anatomy of a multistate listeria outbreak.
“Sara Lee, which makes Ball Park and Hygrade hot dogs and Sara Lee Deli Meat, recalled about 15 million pounds of meat in December 1998 after the federal government determined that a rare strain of listeria bacteria in the company's hot dogs and cold cuts had probably sickened people in several states. It was one of the largest meat recalls in United States history,” The New York Times reported.
The CDC said that starting in August 1998, illnesses caused by a single strain of Listeria monocytogenes (LM) had been identified in 10 states, stretching from coast to coast:
- New York
- West Virginia
Most of the patients had consumed cooked hot dogs during the months before illness outset and on December 19, 1998, the outbreak strain of LM was isolated from an open package of hot dogs.
Two days later the manufacturer, Bil Marr Foods, which operated the western Michigan plant where the tainted food originated from, voluntarily recalled specific production lots of hot dogs and other meat products that might have been contaminated.
Sara Lee Pleads Guilty, Pays $4.4 million
By June 2021, the Sara Lee Corporation had pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge that it had produced and distributed tainted meat that had sickened consumers and was linked to the 21 deaths and miscarriages.
The Washington Post in its 2000 article “Poisoned Package” put a human face on the deadly toll, which included:
- Helen Bodnar, 74-year-old who loved to eat Ball Park franks, died Oct. 19, 1998, in Memphis
- Gloria Andrzejewski, 56-year-old from Detroit died Nov. 22, 1998.
- Christopher Ntukogu, age 31 of Columbus, Ohio, who ate a lot of deli sandwiches, died Dec. 24, 1998
- Irene Wood, 75-year-old from Upstate New York, died on Christmas Day 1998.
- Lisa Lisa, a 27-year-old pregnant woman from Columbus, survived the flu-like illness but her twins born prematurely in January 1999 died from it.
The company, according to The New York Times, also agreed to pay $4.4. million to settle civil and criminal charges brought by the United States attorney for Western Michigan.
“Sara Lee, which is based in Chicago, closed some lines at the plant in December 1998 and has since spent about $25 million on renovations to a site that government inspectors said in the time leading up to the outbreak was infested with roaches and contained old meat and debris,” reported The New York Times.
Phillip J. Green, the United States attorney in Grand Rapids, Mich., said Sara Lee was only charged with a misdemeanor and not a felony because investigators found no evidence that the company intentionally produced or distributed adulterated meats.
''It is tragic that people died,'' said Green according to The New York Times. ''But the law does not provide for a felony charge unless we can show that the company knew and intended to ship adulterated foods.''