On Friday, May 4, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services confirmed that salmonella bacteria discovered in Smiling Hara tempeh during a routine inspection matches the Salmonella Paratyphi B strain that has sickened 46 people, sending seven to the hospital. The infected include residents of Buncombe County as well as residents from South Carolina, New York, Tennessee and Georgia.
Gibbie Harris, Health Director for the Buncombe County Department of Health, says the strain is non-typhoidal, thus not as severe as initially believed — although it can still cause severe symptoms.
Harris says that people infected with this type of salmonella poisoning have been sickened either by consumption of tempeh, through cross-contamination, or from contact with others who are ill. “We do know that there is a connection between the tempeh and the infections which we’ve seen,” says Harris. “[But] there are other ways of infection, other ways of contamination. We are seeing, in general, about 50 percent of the people [sickened] have eaten tempeh — so that means that 50 percent have not.”
Although Buncombe County Environmental Health specialists have confirmed that all Smiling Hara tempeh has been removed from stores and restaurants under their jurisdiction, the number of those infected continues to rise. “We want to make sure that the community knows that we are still in the middle of an outbreak,” says Harris. “The case count goes up every day, so we know that we’re continuing to have contamination and infection.” The public is urged to prevent the spread of disease by washing hands and properly preparing food. Learn more by calling the case hotline at 250-5109 or by visiting http://www.buncombecounty.org/governing/depts/health/
Harris praised Smiling Hara for their proactive approach to helping curtail the spread of infection, voluntarily pulling and destroying all products as soon as the bacteria was discovered. “The fact that they pulled this stuff before they even had [lab] confirmation speaks a lot for the organization and for the business,” Harris says.
Chad Oliphant of Smiling Hara says that no one in his organization or at Blue Ridge Food Ventures (where the product is made) has gotten sick.
For now, Oliphant says, the company’s main concern is keeping people safe. “For the last two and a half years, we’ve put our heart and soul into this product and into this company,” he says. “Our customer base is not just consumers, but our families, friends and community. It’s been heartbreaking.”
The Department of Agriculture has just determined that the starter culture that Smiling Hara tempeh sources from elsewhere and uses in the tempeh-making process tested positive for salmonella.
“For us it means that we’ve identified the point of entry,” says Chad Oliphant of Smiling Hara. “It had nothing to do with our sanitation, protocol or Blue Ridge Food Ventures. It did not originate in Asheville and it was unknowingly passed along to us. So it’s a big relief to us. Now we can look at moving forward — it’s up to the FDA to trace this further.”