Sara Lee may have knowingly supplied listeria-tainted meat in 1998.

While these allegations have not been substantiated, the news certainly won’t do anything for public confidence in the meat industry, still reeling from other recent health scares. If the industry wants to reverse declining consumption, the public must see quality control and regulatory measures as effective in the long run.


Sara Lee Bakeries UK Ltd

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The deadly listeria outbreak of 1998 led to a spate of cases against manufacturer Sara Lee. The company accepted a plea bargain misdemeanor charge for selling “adulterated meat and poultry” – hotdogs and other food products produced in SL’s Bil-Mar plant eventually led to 15 deaths, six miscarriages and over 100 illnesses.

In the court case, prosecutors told the court that there was no evidence that SL had knowingly sold listeria-infected meat or attempted to cover up evidence. They pointed out that SL had recalled 15 million pounds of meat in December 1998 and claimed that this recall was timely.

However, investigational documents of the US Department of Agriculture include testimony suggesting management was aware of the problem much earlier. According to the report, a USDA inspector found that Bil-Mar managers were aware of the problem in 1997. He claimed that they skirted the law by testing for conditions suitable to the growth of Listeria monocytogenes, but avoiding testing for the presence of the bacterium.

The inspector claims management suspected a problem but was willing to continue selling the meat as long as there was no proof. The report concludes that Bil-Mar management either knew or should have known that their meat products contained listeria but shipped them anyway. However, the Department of Justice, in its own review, could not substantiate any of the claims.

Irrespective of the truth of this situation, the reports will do nothing for public confidence in either Sara Lee or the meat industry. Quality control policies must be implemented and enforced from top management through the entire organization, rather than being left solely to plant managers. To increase public confidence in the meat industry, regulators are going to have to prove once and for all that such things can no longer occur.

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