The discovery of potentially deadly bacteria in turkey from a plant in Camden, N.J., has baffled investigators who thought they had traced a nationwide outbreak of food poisoning to a different factory 30 miles away in Pennsylvania.
The Centers for Disease Control last month blamed a Wampler Foods plant in Franconia for an outbreak of listeriosis that has killed seven people and sickened 50, saying the bacteria strain responsible for the illnesses had been found there in a pair of drains.
But on Friday a genetically indistinguishable batch of listeria also turned up in a sample of Jack Lambersky Poultry Company deli meat produced at J.L. Foods in Camden, the CDC said. Both plants are just outside Philadelphia.
CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said authorities are now investigating whether “a common source product,” such as the same batch of raw turkey meat, was used at both plants.
He said that while technically possible, it was “extremely unlikely,” that the bacteria from the two plants came from separate sources because they had the same basic genetic makeup.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to test two more meat processing plants for listeria this week, according to Steven Cohen, a spokesman for the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service. He declined to name the plants.
Wampler spokesman Ray Atkinson said the fact that listeria was found at the competing plant raises doubts about whether the company’s Franconia facility was responsible for any deaths.
“We believe that this finding suggests that the outbreak may have another source, and this is consistent with what we have been saying all along,” he said.
As the investigation continued Monday, a 98-year-old doctor who was hospitalized with listeriosis for two months filed a class action lawsuit against Wampler Foods.
Lawyers for Dr. Frank Niemtzow said genetic tests proved the retired obstetrician was made sick by the same batch of bacteria found in drains at the Wampler plant, which is owned by Pilgrim’s Pride.
Wampler officials would not comment on the lawsuit Monday, but Atkinson said he was unaware of any test that had conclusively linked an ill person to bacteria in a Wampler plant.
Niemtzow was a physician for 60 years in Freehold, N.J., and was the obstetrician who attended the birth of rock star Bruce Springsteen. He now lives in Florida and Philadelphia.
He fell ill in early August and was hospitalized until Oct. 1. Niemtzow’s son, Stuart, said his father has been severely weakened by the disease. Previously Niemtzow had lived alone. Now, he needs 24-hour nursing care, Stuart Niemtzow said.
“The long time in the hospital took a lot out of him,” he said. “Let’s be realistic. When you are 98 years old, you don’t bounce back from something like this.”
The suit, filed in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, demands refunds for people who bought tainted Wampler products, punitive damages and compensation for pain and suffering.
Chicago attorney Kenneth B. Moll, who is representing Niemtzow, said he believed further scientific tests would prove that his client was made ill by eating Wampler’s food, rather than turkey from J.L. Foods, which was not named in the suit.
J.L. Foods general manager Kenneth Martin said the company won’t know whether its products caused any illnesses until it receives more information from the USDA.
“Right now we are in the dark. And it’s an insult to us and to our product until we can find out what happened,” he said.
Listeriosis kills about 500 people in the United States each year, according to the CDC.