Listeria contamination in a commercial, catered meal has claimed the life of a woman in her 80s, while “thousands” more elderly and ill people may be at risk from meals made by a company supplying hospitals, aged care homes and Meals on Wheels.
The Victorian Heath Department ordered the commercial caterer, I Cook Foods, to temporarily suspend production on Friday while the source of the infection is investigated.
The elderly woman died in Knox Private Hospital on February 4.
The woman contracted a listeria-related illness after being admitted for an unrelated condition in January, a health department spokesperson said.
Six positive samples of listeriosis were reportedly found in the company’s kitchen in Dandenong South on Friday.
Some Meals on Wheels services distributed food from the premises.
“This is of deep concern to our organisation and those Meals on Wheels services are working closely with Victorian health authorities to ensure that no potentially contaminated meals are delivered to consumers,” Meals on Wheels president Sharyn Broer said on Friday night.
The catering company provides meals to patients in private hospitals including St Vincent’s, Frankston and Knox, Holmesglen, North Park private hospitals, Mercy aged care homes and Meals on Wheels providers across Victoria who operate through local government councils.
All affected sites have been ordered to throw out remaining food from I Cook Foods produced between January 13, 2019, and February 21, 2019.
People in the affected council areas including Traralgon and Ballarat should avoid eating frozen or chilled meals until they have spoken with their meal provider.
A full list of affected councils, hospitals and aged care facilities can be found on the Victoria Department of Health website.
Victoria’s acting chief health officer Brett Sutton told reporters on Friday he was acting out of an “abundance of caution” to close the kitchen, while the department makes further investigations into the woman’s death.
“We understand she has consumed a number of high-risk foods, they were investigated in the community, but they have also been tracked back potentially to I Cook Foods,” Dr Sutton said.
“We think something has gone amiss in the food production … but we are at very early stages of investigation.
“Thousands of people may have been exposed.
“A third of people who get [listeriosis] can die, it can cause blood poisoning or septicaemia, meningitis and it finds its place in food contamination too easily,” Dr Sutton said.
There were 27 recorded cases of listeriosis in Victoria in 2018.
The catering company, I Cook Foods, has been contacted for comment.
Their website and Facebook page, which once advertised their “passionate” and “experienced family-owned and run business” were no longer accessible on Saturday.
Councils, hospitals and care facilities will need to find other places to provide meals for up to two weeks, Dr Sutton said.
“Anyone who is elderly, immune-suppressed or pregnant women are at risk,” he said, adding soft cheeses, sliced meats and fruits were among the high-risk foods.
Listeriosis presents with flu-like symptoms of fever, chills, muscle aches, nausea and sometimes diarrhoea. In those at greater risk, there is a risk of sepsis, meningitis, pneumonia and endocarditis, according to the health department.
Australian National University professor Martyn Kirk has examined the burden of food-borne disease in Australia and the risk factors associated with listeriosis.
Professor Kirk told The New Daily listeria was a rare infection in Australia with only 70 to 90 cases per a year nationally and about 20 in Victoria.
Unlike the listeria outbreak on the surface of rockmelon last year, Professor Kirk said the health department would likely find some form of contamination on the bench surfaces, possibly near a sink, in the I Cook Foods kitchen.
“In this instance, the organism can become established in food production, as it can grow at the temperature of refrigeration once it becomes stable,” Professor Kirk said.
“Companies serving food to elderly people or people in hospital need to take extra care,” he added, acknowledging listeria only seriously affected the elderly, the immune-compromised and pregnant women.
Anyone with concerns should contact the health department on 1300 651 160.