Listeria fears: Greenyard investigates “root cause,” as UK supermarkets recall frozen vegetables

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09 Jul 2018 --- Greenyard, the company at the center of a frozen vegetable listeria contamination scare, says its top priority is the on-going recall initiative working with supermarkets to call back certain batches amid concern that they could contain the bacteria. The fruit and vegetable giant tells FoodIngredientsFirst that production has stopped at its Hungarian vegetable plant while an in-depth investigation takes place into the potential listeria contamination. 

Supermarkets have recalled bags of frozen vegetables over fears they could contain the potentially deadly bacteria. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) said the vegetables may contain Listeria monocytogenes which can cause listeriosis, a rare illness responsible for the death of two people in the UK last year. To date, 43 sweetcorn-based products have been withdrawn by supermarket supplier Greenyard.

“Listeria comes in a number of varieties. Some types are more virulent than others and could imply a different level of health risks. At this stage, we don’t have specific data or confirmation on health issues linked to contamination of our products, but we continue to monitor this and have taken a range of measures to pre-empt potential health risks,” Greenyard says. 

Products that are being recalled include frozen corn, peas, beans, spinach and sorrel and UK supermarkets including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Lidl, Aldi, Waitrose and Iceland are all affected. 

A spokesperson for Aldi UK tells FoodIngredientsFirst: “In line with other retailers, we have recalled this product as a precaution as there is a possibility that the product contains traces of listeria. Customers should return the product to their nearest store where they will receive a full refund.”

“We have been alerted to the possible presence of listeria in certain frozen vegetable packs. We have not received any complaints. However, we are not willing to take any risks where the safety of our customers is concerned and so we are recalling these products as a precaution,” a Sainsbury's spokesperson tells FoodIngredientsFirst.

“We’re asking customers who have bought these products not to consume them, and to return them to their nearest Sainsbury’s store where they will receive a full refund. We’re sorry for any inconvenience this may cause.”

FoodIngredientsFirst has also reached out to other UK supermarkets for comment. 

Greenyard says the recall initiative of these products does not imply that they are actually contaminated and stresses its commitment to taking a maximum of precautionary measures as “food safety is Greenyard’s number one priority.”

Full details of different batches of frozen vegetables that have been recalled from UK supermarkets have been published by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) including batch numbers, pack size and best before date. 

An FSA risk statement says: “The products listed above might be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. Symptoms caused by this organism can be similar to flu and include high temperature, muscle ache or pain, chills, feeling or being sick and diarrhea.”

“Some people are more vulnerable to listeria infections, including those over 65 years of age, pregnant women and their unborn babies, babies less than one-month-old and people with weakened immune systems.”

The FSA advises people who have bought any of the products not to eat them and instead return the products to the store for a full refund. The Agency says that frozen sweetcorn is the likely source of an ongoing outbreak of listeriosis affecting five European countries including the UK. 

And the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said listeria has been affecting Austria, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and the UK in recent years. 

“Frozen corn and possibly other frozen vegetables are the likely source of an outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes that has been affecting Austria, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom since 2015,” says an EFSA statement. 

“Experts used whole genome sequencing to identify the food source, which initially was thought to be limited to frozen corn. As of 8 June 2018, 47 cases including nine deaths had been reported.”

“The same strains of L. monocytogenes have been detected in frozen vegetables produced by the same Hungarian company in 2016, 2017 and 2018. This suggests that the strains have persisted in the processing plant despite the cleaning and disinfection procedures that were carried out.”

According to the EFSA, new cases could still emerge due to the extended incubation period of listeriosis (up to 70 days); the long shelf-life of frozen corn products; and the consumption of frozen corn bought before the recalls and eaten without being cooked properly.

Listeria is a bacterium that can be found in soil and water. It is most commonly found in raw foods such as fruit or vegetables. However, listeria can also be found in ready to eat foods that have been contaminated during processing.

In many cases, listeria presents as a mild illness with fever and muscle aches, but for the immune compromised, young, elderly, and pregnant, it can be much more serious. Listeria can invade the central nervous system and cause meningitis and even brain infection. In pregnant women, listeria can lead to miscarriage, infection of the newborn, or stillbirth.

What is the background? 
Greenyard is mainly active in the distribution of fresh products, such as vegetables, fruit, flowers and plants. It has branches and customers worldwide, including many retailers in Europe. The company operates in 27 countries.

Hungarian authorities notified Greenyard on June 29, 2018 of their request to recall frozen vegetable products produced in the company’s plant in Hungary. 

This measure was triggered by more advanced research (whole genome sequencing) by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), indicating that there was a potential contamination with a specific type of listeria, which might incur health risks in case frozen vegetables are not properly cooked before consumption.  

Listeria comes in a number of varieties. Some types are more virulent than others and could imply a different level of health risks. At this stage, Greenyard says that it does not have specific data or confirmation on health issues linked to contamination of its products, but that it is continuing to monitor this and has taken a range of measures to pre-empt potential health risks. 

The Greenyard statement continues: “We are in close contact with competent authorities to assess further information together and we fully support any further research, as food safety and the health of consumers are obviously our number one priority.”

“We endorse the advice to cook frozen products until it has reached 70°C and stayed at that temperature for at least two minutes. As a producer of frozen vegetable products, we recommend our customers to include cooking instructions on each packaging.”

By Gaynor Selby

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