Murano says listeriosis outbreak shows USDA program falls short

Nov 7, 2002 (CIDRAP News) – Recent meat recalls associated with a prolonged listeriosis outbreak show that the current federal program for keeping Listeria out of meatis falling short, Elsa Murano, the US Department of Agriculture's undersecretary for food safety, said in remarks prepared for a speech yesterday.

USDA testing of ready-to-eat poultry products failed to prevent the Listeria monocytogenes contamination that led to a massive recall by a Pennsylvania company and a smaller recall by a New Jersey firm, Murano said. Listeria specimens found in the Pennsylvania plant and in a product from the New Jersey plant genetically matched a Listeria strain that has caused 50 illness cases and seven deaths in the Northeast.

"The recent history of dealing with Listeria monocytogenes has been based on FSIS [Food Safety and Inspection Service] testing of the end product in an effort to verify whether SSOPs [sanitation standard operating procedures] implemented by industry were effective," Murano stated in a talk she prepared for a meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection in Washington, DC. The FSIS supplied a copy of her script.

"The events of the last month, capped by the largest recall in USDA history, demonstrate that this approach is inadequate," Murano stated. (An Associated Press report of Murano's talk at the meeting quoted her as calling USDA's approach "not completely adequate.")

"Testing failed to prevent the outbreak of listeriosis in the Northeastern United States and it failed to 'catch' the contaminated product linked to the outbreak until after an exhaustive investigation in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," Murano's text stated. "This one investigation, with more than 50 scientific and technical experts from FSIS alone, took more than 400 laboratory samples in order to identify the likely source of the outbreak."

"My view is that we cannot test our way out of this problem," Murano added. "We cannot test enough product or plant environments to find all the Listeria monocytogenes that is out there threatening food safety."

The solution, she said, is to identify the steps in processing where Listeria can contaminate food and then to use testing to ensure that prevention measures are working. The FSIS is now in the final stages of a risk assessment to determine how Listeria contamination can occur, she said. The agency hopes to develop a model for estimating the risk of finding the pathogen in specific situations.

Consumer groups have criticized the USDA for not imposing a rule, drafted in the Clinton administration, that would require companies to do their own testing for Listeria." When the risk assessment is completed then we will move expeditiously to finalize a proposed rule," Murano said.

Until then, she appealed to food processors to share their data on Listeria risk with USDA. Commenting that the industry has far more data regarding contamination of environmental surfaces than the FSIS can hope to gather, she said, "Until the risk assessment is completed, it would be of great value to increase the number of results that can be shared with FSIS in order for us to determine the effectiveness of SSOPs in preventing contamination of ready-to-eat meat with Listeria monocytogenes."

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