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Justice Department probes Dole’s handling of Listeria reports

WASHINGTON — The Department of Justice is investigating Dole Fresh Vegetables Inc. in connection to a report the company detected listeria before shutting down its Ohio facility, which was later tied to an outbreak, the company confirmed Friday.

Health officials started investigating the multistate outbreak in September 2015, but the source of the illnesses wasn’t known until January 2016 when laboratory results from a packaged salad collected in Ohio linked the illnesses to Dole’s Springfield processing facility.

Dole Fresh Vegetables Inc. suspended operations at its Springfield, OH, facility and launched a recall of all salads packaged at that location on Jan. 27. The plant restarted salad production on April 21.

But last week, Food Safety News obtained FDA Inspection Reports that showed Dole detected positive Listeria tests in the Springfield plant more than five times in 2014 and three more times in 2015 but kept producing salads until January 2016.

Dole officials revealed that internal testing in early January showed Listeria on equipment and other surfaces, according to Food Safety News, which is published by William Marler, a high-profile attorney in food-safety outbreak cases and managing partner of Marler Clark, a Seattle-based law firm.

Dole issued an April 29 statement responding to concerns about the FDA observation reports and confirmed the Justice Department had contacted the firm in connection with its own investigation.

“Those FDA reports deal with issues at our plant that we have corrected. We have been working in collaboration with the FDA and other authorities to implement ongoing improved testing, sanitation and procedure enhancements, which have resulted in the recent reopening of our Springfield salad plant,” Dole said. “We understand that these recent news reports may raise questions among our consumers and customers. They should be assured, however, that we have worked in conjunction with the FDA to address those observations and ensure that Dole products are safe.”

Dole added that it planned to cooperate with the Department of Justice on the investigation.

The latest report has caused a firestorm.

“Dole’s failure to stop shipping products and clean up its plant before the outbreak showed a total disregard for its customers’ health,” said David Plunkett, senior food safety attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), who has been pressing FDA on the tainted salad investigation, said April 29 that Dole should answer for distributing salads for more than a year after knowing the company had Listeria contamination.

“News that Dole knew about a Listeria outbreak in their facility, yet continued to push contaminated salads onto the American consumer, is an outrage,” she said. “How could executives at Dole even consider putting products onto store shelves and into American homes when they knew for close to two years that there was a major public health issue?”

DeLauro said the Dole facility should be shut down if its actions are not sufficient to ensure food safety.