UPDATE: July 9, 2021: The U.S. Department of Agriculture increased the amount of recalled chicken to nearly 9 million pounds. The expanded recall involves the same product SKUs, but from a wider range of date codes, the notice said.
Tyson Foods is recalling about 8.5 million pounds of frozen, fully cooked chicken that could have been contaminated with listeria, the company and the USDA said in separate statements. The affected products were produced at one plant located in Dexter, Missouri, between Dec. 26, 2020, and April 13, 2021, and distributed to foodservice and retail customers nationwide and in Puerto Rico. Walmart, Publix and Wegmans are among the retailers who sold the product, USA Today reported.
The products being recalled include pulled chicken breasts, diced chicken breasts and chicken breast strips sold under brand names such as Tyson, Jet’s Pizza and Casey’s General Store. USDA investigators were first notified of two people sick with listeriosis on June 9, and later linked it to precooked chicken produced by Tyson, the government said. Investigators soon identified three listeriosis illnesses, including one death, between April 6 and June 5.
The recall, the largest for listeria bacteria since 2016, is the latest foodborne illness outbreak in recent years. Other products impacted include ice cream, flour, lettuce and red onions.
While it is still in the early stages of the investigation, the recall involving Tyson's chicken products involve a huge quantity of meat sold at popular retailers and foodservice locations where people are at a high risk of being susceptible to listeria. In addition to big-name retailers like Walmart, the products in question also were shipped nationwide to hospitals, nursing facilities, restaurants and schools.
In a statement, Tyson said "there is no conclusive evidence that the products were contaminated at the time of shipment" and that the recall is "being initiated out of an abundance of caution."
Listeriosis can lead to symptoms including fever, muscle aches and convulsions, sometimes preceded by diarrhea or other gastrointestinal issues. An estimated 1,600 people get listeriosis each year, and about 260 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The infection is most likely to sicken pregnant women, adults aged 65 or older, and people with weakened immune systems.
A CDC report released last year that analyzed 2019 data compared to the period between 2016 and 2018 showed foodborne pathogens were increasing across the board, and chicken and leafy greens were specifically called out as notable culprits in transmission. These two sectors were largely responsible for instances of salmonella, cyclospora and listeria infections.
It remains to be seen how the listeria case involving Tyson will compare to other recent large foodborne illness outbreaks.
Blue Bell Creameries agreed last year to pay a total of $19.35 million in criminal and civil forfeitures in connection with a 2015 listeria outbreak that sickened 10, killed three and resulted in all of the company's products being recalled. Lettuce and other leafy greens have been hit by a series of outbreaks that sickened hundreds of people, and flour was recalled in 2019 because it might be contaminated with salmonella. And a massive salmonella outbreak in 2020 was caused by red onions — which resulted in 1,127 reported illnesses in the United States and 515 in Canada.
Federal laws like the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed by President Obama in 2011, require more comprehensive and frequent food safety tests and remediation in an effort to prevent an outbreak or contain it more quickly once it does occur.
Some companies also are investing in technology that can minimize the chance for an outbreak. Tyson Ventures, the meat company's venture capital arm, invested two years ago in Clear Labs' automated food safety platform, which can detect salmonella and E. coli in 24 hours instead of three to five days.
The Tyson recall is taking place as meat and poultry remain especially popular among consumers looking to boost their protein intake. Data sourced from the USDA and cited by the National Chicken Council estimated Americans could consume a record 97.8 pounds of chicken per capita in 2021.
As of now, the recall shouldn't negatively impact demand for chicken or hurt Tyson, especially since the outbreak appears isolated to one plant. It also is limited to two states, which includes Texas, rather than being a widespread issue across a larger part of the U.S. But based on previous foodborne illness outbreaks, it will take several months to decipher the full extent of the Tyson recall.