Listeria Bacteria Suspected From Onions in Packaged Foods

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Barbeque sauce, chicken salad and bean dip -- all pre-made products with onions on the ingredient list -- are now reported to be at risk of containing the bacteria known as listeria following a series of recalls earlier this summer from a Colorado-based onion supplier.

Gill's Onions, located in Oxnard, Calif., announced its latest recall last week, the third of the summer. Included were diced and slivered red and yellow onions, diced celery/onion mix and whole onions. So far, no illnesses have been reported.

"Our priority right now is to carry out this recall effectively and efficiently in order to reduce the risk to public health," said Steve Gill, president of Gill's Onions. "We've identified the problem, and we are taking aggressive actions, in addition to our normal food safety measures."

However, the recalled items include more than just diced onions. Grocery stores across the nation, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Wegmans, Weis and Publix have all recalled products containing onions from Gill's Farms.

"Take something as simple as an onion and realize that a company distributes these onions quite far and wide," said Michele Simon, a public health lawyer and President of Eat, Drink, Politics, a public health advocacy firm. "They could be contained in products you don't even think about."

Recalled products range from shrimp salad, beet dressing and pre-made corned beef sandwiches in Whole Foods stores in Florida to wingless buffalo blue cheese dip and veggie pizza at Wegman's Food Market stores in Pennsylvania, according to company press releases.

GH Foods CA, Trader Joe's, Huxtable's Kitchen and Simmering Soup brands, Cool Creations, Ken's Foods Inc. and Garden Fresh are other brands that have recalled products containing the possibly-contaminated onions.

Products containing the onions have been distributed to stores in more than half the states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.

A full list of recalled food products can be found on the FDA website. All recalled products should be discarded and not consumed, the FDA said.

"People should realize, whenever there is fresh produce chopped up and processed in some way… there is a risk of contamination," Simon said. "A way to prevent this is to make your own food. You have control over it in your own kitchen."

Listeria is a food borne disease-causing bacteria that, according to the Food and Drug Administration, "may cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people and others with weakened immune systems." Listeria can also cause miscarriages and stillbirths in pregnant women. Otherwise healthy individuals may suffer only short-term symptoms, such as high fever, headaches, nausea and diarrhea.

The United States sees about 1,600 cases of lis teriosis each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms could take as long as two months to show up and mortality rates can be as high as 20 percent for those who are hospitalized.

Dr. David Acheson, partner and managing director of food safety at Leavitt Partners, healthcare and food safety consulting firm, said it is likely that the onions came into contact with the listeria at some point in the processing facility, perhaps from condensation on the conveyer belt, refrigeration units or on the chopping equipment.

Nearly 600 cases of whole cantaloupes from Burch Farms in Faison, N.C., are also currently under recall due to possible Listeria contamination. The cantaloupes were distributed to retail stores in New York, Maine and potentially other states.

Earlier this year, River Ranch Fresh Foods issued a voluntary recall for its bagged salad from stores across the nation after concerns over lsteria contamination and in 2011, lettuce from Oregon distributor True Leaf Farms that possibly contained Listeria was recalled from stores in Washington and Idaho.

However, none of those incidents compared to a 28-state outbreak in 2011, which resulted in 33 deaths, 147 infections and one miscarriage. The listeria contamination, linked to Holly, Colo.-based Jensen Farms, was the declared the largest outbreak of food-borne disease to have been identified in decades.

Despite the increase in cases, Acheson said he doesn't believe the number of cases is increasing, but more cases are being found because testing is now more frequent.

"The Jensen Farms episode was triggered because of illness, this one was triggered through testing," Acheson said. "We're getting better at recognizing it. There is more testing going on so it's being found."

Serena Marshall contributed to this story.

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