The FDA recently took the relatively unusual step of obtaining a court-issued warrant to seize all cheese products at Estrella Family Creamery, a small, family-owned artisan cheese maker in Washington State. According to the United States Attorney's Office for the Western District of Washington, "the FDA asked Estrella to recall all cheese products. The company refused." The FDA requested the recall after both products and the manufacturing environment at Estrella tested positive for Listeria. A copy of the FDA form 483 report immediately pre-dating the recall request is here.

As the Estrella situation illustrates, the FDA is not just focused on large-scale manufacturing. As the FDA and USDA move to more risk-based allocation of resources, they are increasingly concerned about smaller operations and retail. Below are issues any food manufacturer must tackle when it comes to Listeria (much of this also applies to other food-borne pathogens).

What is Listeria?

Listeria monocytogenes is a bacterium that causes listeriosis, which primarily affects persons of advanced age, pregnant women, newborns, and adults with weakened immune systems. Though it affects only a small portion of the population, Listeria is the most deadly food-borne pathogen in the United States, killing 20-30% of all those who become seriously ill.

What should you do if your product tests positive for Listeria?

Assemble your well-rehearsed crisis management team immediately if a product tests positive (or if a regulator believes that your product may be contaminated). Members of the crisis management team; food safety personnel; company executives; and representatives from accounting, legal, supply chain, sales and customer service all are essential in the decision making process below.

Can you trace back and isolate contamination?

Quality assurance and food safety personnel need to answer trace-back issues as soon as possible. Can you determine the source of the contamination? Is it limited to one lot or a single day of production? How often are production facilities sanitized? How often are production surfaces swabbed for Listeria? Does the production facility re-use contaminated product from shift to shift?

Will you have to issue a recall?

Both the FDA and USDA lack mandatory recall authority. Though, as Estrella learned, the agencies do have the bully pulpit and the ability to get a court order to seize products. Because of the high mortality rate, regulators (federal and state) take any positive Listeria test result in food products extremely seriously.

If the food is considered a ready-to-eat product (RTE), a positive Listeria test will almost invariably lead to the FDA or USDA requesting a class I recall.

Even for a non-RTE food, a positive Listeria test will lead to a requested recall. If the agencies believe that the cooking instructions are clear, are easily followed by consumers and, if followed, will kill the bacterium, then the recall may be considered class II.

A primary difference between class I and II is that the class I recall will result in much greater publicity. For FDA-regulated facilities, a class I recall also triggers reporting and notification requirements under the Reportable Food Registry (RFR).

What does the Reportable Food Registry require?

RFR requires FDA-registered facilities to report to the FDA portal within 24 hours when there is a "reasonable probability that an article of food will cause serious adverse health consequences." As part of the report, information must be submitted "one step back and one step forward" in the supply chain. Once a report is submitted, the FDA will promptly alert your customers of the "reasonable probability" that your product will result in "adverse health consequences or death." If suppliers and customers are also FDA facilities, the FDA will also pressure those companies to report to the portal.

The ticking of the RFR's 24-hour reporting deadline forces a company to make snap decisions that might affect its entire business. While RFR reports can be amended or withdrawn based on new information, in the world of food products, the bell can almost never be unrung. A more lengthy discussion of the RFR can be found here.

How do you marshal your case with the regulators?

Assuming that you have information showing that contamination is limited (or non-existent), how do you convince the regulators? The FDA and USDA’s concern is public health (and politics). The regulators’ concern is not for your business.

Providing information to the regulators in a manner they perceive as credible, prompt and transparent is critical. Once the regulators lose confidence in your company's credibility and competence, the game may be over. In most cases, the most effective way to marshal your evidence is a well-prepared and credentialed crisis management team (e.g., food safety, quality assurance, supply chain, accounting, sales, legal, media, etc.).