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The holiday season is upon us – a time of year when many of our celebrations take place around food. And whether it’s today or any other day, the last thing anyone wants to worry about is whether that food is safe. Thankfully, here in Massachusetts we know the DPH Food Protection Program (FPP) is watching out for all of us.

Each and every day, DPH field inspectors travel across the state inspecting and monitoring our food supply: everything from wholesale food processing and distribution facilities, to dairy plants and seafood operations.  Their efforts ensure the food provided to supermarkets and restaurants that ends up on our plates meets required safety and health standards.

So what happens when inspectors discover something in our food supply that could be harmful to the public? To answer this and other questions, we turned to the experts in our DPH Food Protection Program.

What kinds of activities happen when you discover something in our food supply that could be harmful to the public?

Depending on the scope and severity of the problem we find, we can take a number of different actions. For example, DPH can order a supermarket to take immediate action like removing a product from its shelves. We might work with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to initiate a recall, or issue a press advisory to alert the public to the problem.

How does a supermarket go about alerting customers who purchased a tainted product?

Supermarkets can alert their customers in a number of ways. If supermarkets have a shopper card or loyalty program, they can identify customers who purchased the implicated product (if they used their shopper card).  Supermarkets can send out alerts through app notifications, text messages, or email.  A supermarket can also post notices throughout the store and/or on their website. Here at DPH, recall notices posted on FDA and USDA websites are also posted as links on our website.

Tell us about the situation this summer when you discovered a bacteria in packaged vegetables. Did you know right away this was a serious problem? How do you weigh whether to alert the public?

That was an interesting situation. The FDA announced that a Maine-based company had voluntarily recalled some of its packaged vegetables over concerns about possible contamination with the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes, following food product testing that we conducted here at DPH.

Out of an abundance of caution, the manufacturer, Growers Express, said it was recalling packaged varieties of fresh vegetable products, including butternut squash, cauliflower, zucchini, and a butternut squash-based veggie bowl sold under the brand names Green Giant Fresh, Growers Express, Signature Farms, and Trader Joe’s. The FDA released a list of the stores and states affected, which includes stores in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut.

The possible contamination was discovered in packaged vegetables purchased during our regular surveillance activities through the FDA-funded Rapid Response Team in DPH’s Working Group for Foodborne Illness Control. Testing completed in June by our DPH Public Health Laboratory confirmed the presence of Listeria monocytogenes in a bag of Green Giant Fresh Zucchini Noodles purchased at a Massachusetts Stop & Shop.  The FDA announced the company’s voluntary recall on Monday, July 1.

As DPH Commissioner Monica Bharel said at the time, the case illustrated the benefits of public health and private industry working together to protect our food supply and prevent the possible spread of illness.

This was actually the second time in as many years that a DPH investigation has initiated a multistate food recall. Last year, DPH disease investigators traced a rare strain of Salmonella to frozen shredded coconut, prompting the FDA and the distributor to issue a multistate recall.

What did you learn from these cases and what do you want consumers to know?

These cases reinforced for us the importance of collaboration. The Rapid Response Team and DPH’s Working Group for Foodborne Illness Control collaborate with a variety of partners including local boards of health, Massachusetts state agencies, other states, and FDA to coordinate efforts for the safety of the food supply.

Consumers should know whether they are selecting groceries at the supermarket, deciding what to order at the new restaurant in town, or sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, they can rest assured that we are working hard to make sure the food is safe to eat.

Written By:

Communications Director at the Department of Public Health

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