Colonies of Listeria monocytogenes contaminated with staphylococcus

What you need to know about the European Listeria outbreak

Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium responsible for causing the illness listeria in human beings, continues to sweep the European Union (EU).

The outbreak is having a major impact in Northern European states, with the UK, Austria, Denmark, Finland and Sweden affected.

In this blog post, we’ll explain what the outbreak involves, how it occurred and the impact it’s had on supply chains across the continent.

What is listeria?

Listeria monocytogenes is a bacterium responsible for causing an illness called listeriosis. It’s quite rare, and usually disappears without any medical treatment, but in some cases, it can cause serious problems for those infected.

Typically, listeriosis is caught from eating food that’s been infected by the listeria bacteria in the first place. In some cases, you can contract it from someone that has it, and hasn’t washed their hands, or if you’ve had contact with farm animals that are giving birth.

Those at risk include:

  • people with weakened immune systems, such as those suffering from cancer;
  • pregnant women and their unborn babies;
  • newborn babies;
  • elderly people.

Symptoms of listeriosis include:

  • a high temperature of 38C or above;
  • aches and pains;
  • chills;
  • feeling sick or vomiting;
  • diarrhoea.

In typical listeriosis cases, you can treat yourself at home with bed rest and plenty of fluids and you’ll get better in a few days. However, we recommend checking out this NHS article for additional advice.

How did the latest listeria outbreak happen?

As of 8 June 2018, and since 2015, 45 listeriosis cases have been reported as part of this outbreak. Nine of these cases resulted in death. But what, specifically, caused this epidemic?

Food scientists have attributed blame to a warehouse in Hungary. After testing, and piecing together a full picture of the situation, frozen corn and a selection of other vegetables have been blamed.

Research from this group of scientists has revealed strains of listeria have persisted, despite deep cleaning and disinfection protocols at the affected warehouse.  A report by the ECDC-EFSA, details how the outbreak occurred and calls for further investigation to identify the exact points of contamination.

How to stay safe from listeria

To reduce the risk of listeria when preparing food at home, it’s important to:

  • keep raw and ready-to-eat foods separate;
  • wash fruit and vegetables rigorously;
  • keep chilled ready-to-eat foods cold – make sure your fridge is working properly and is set to 5⁰C or lower;
  • use foods by their use-by date;
  • follow the storage instructions on the label and use opened foods within two days unless instructions on the packaging say otherwise;
  • cook or reheat foods until they are piping hot right through;
  • follow the manufacturer’s instructions in the preparation of all foods.

How has the outbreak affected supply chains?

It’s had a significant impact on supply chains across Europe. With retailers ordered to remove stock of frozen vegetables that originated from the plant in Hungary, and a blanket ban on distribution from this supplier, it’s created a shortage of these frozen goods. In particular, supermarkets have struggled to stock frozen vegetables.

It’s created issues in supply chains, with suppliers unable to procure frozen vegetables to satisfy customer demand. To keep a consistent supply of frozen goods, for those operating in the food and beverage industry, we recommend considering these measures:

Make solid contingency plans

In situations like this, where your primary supplier is no longer capable of fulfilling orders, it might be best to look for a solid contingency plan. In particular, identifying alternative suppliers, that you can use in emergency situations, is key to ensuring essential supplies remain available.

You’ll want to ensure that the suppliers you have on standby, can deliver at short notice and for as long as you’ll need them to. So, asking the right questions and assessing their capabilities is an instrumental part of this process.

Check your suppliers’ suppliers

It’s important to not only keep track of your primary suppliers but consider their suppliers too. You’ll need to understand what parts of your supply chain could be affected by extraordinary circumstances, such as a listeria outbreak, and ensure key suppliers have adequate solutions in place if production suddenly becomes an issue.

Got any supply chain tips to share?

Got any supply chain management tips you’d like to share? Let us know on our and Twitter accounts.