Dec 3, 2004 (CIDRAP News) Most firms that produce ready-to-eat (RTE) meat and poultry products have taken specific steps to prevent Listeria contamination since new federal safety rules took effect last year, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced this week.
However, close to a quarter of firms that produce RTE products, such as hot dogs and deli meats, failed to comply with some aspect of the new Listeria rules in the first 9 months after they took effect, according to the report by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
The report says that FSIS has found Listeria contamination on about 1% or fewer of recent RTE product samples. However, it cites limited evidence from other sources that 3% to 5% of RTE meats from retail delicatessenswhich are not regulated by the USDAmay harbor Listeria.
"Under the Listeria rule, ready-to-eat meat and poultry products are safer and public health is being better protected," Elsa Murano, USDA under secretary for food safety, said in a news release. "If progress continues at the current rate, we should achieve the Healthy People 2010 goal of lowering the incidence of listeriosis to 0.25 cases per 100,000 people."
Listeria monocytogenes can grow on refrigerated meat and cause serious illness in pregnant women, elderly people, and others with weak immune systems. Largely because of the risk of listeriosis, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says these groups should not eat hot dogs or deli meats unless they are reheated, nor should they eat refrigerated meat spreads, refrigerated smoked seafood unless cooked, or products containing unpasteurized milk.
The USDA began strengthening its Listeria rules for RTE meats in November 2002, after an outbreak in the Northeast involving at least 52 illness cases, seven deaths, and three miscarriages. That prompted the agency to require plants to start testing their surfaces and equipment for Listeria or else submit to increased testing by the FSIS. Previously the FSIS had tested RTE products but not plant equipment.
In October 2003 the FSIS added a requirement that firms take specific steps to prevent Listeria contamination of RTE foods. The rule says producers must choose one of three approaches: (1) using both a "post-lethality" (post-cooking) treatment, such as heating, and a chemical growth inhibitor; (2) using either a post-lethality treatment or a growth inhibitor; or (3) using sanitation only. Firms using sanitation only are supposed to get the most FSIS inspections and those using the first approach the fewest.
The new report was prepared by a 28-member FSIS team that was assigned to measure the effectiveness of all aspects of the Listeria regulations.
The team reports that more than 87% of the nearly 3,000 plants that produce RTE meats have adopted at least one Listeria-related measure since the regulations took effect in October 2003. About 17% of the plants began using a post-lethality treatment to control Listeria, and 27% began using an antimicrobial agent or "other control process" in one or more of their RTE products.
Also, about 59% of the firms started testing for Listeria or similar organisms on food-contact surfaces after the rules took effect, the report says.
The document says that in the first 9 months under the new regulations, 76% of the plants had no "noncompliance records," or violation notices, while 24% had been notified of some type of violation. The report doesn't describe what kinds of violations were most common. About 51% of all RTE plants are classified as "very small," and these accounted for 56% of the Listeria-related rule violations.
Random testing of RTE products this year, including tests on the riskiest products, has shown Listeria on about 1% of samples or less, the report states. In general sampling, 3 of 345 samples collected in the first 5 months of this year tested positive for the pathogen. In testing of the highest-risk products over the same period, 11 of 1,349 samples tested positive.
The report suggests that retail delicatessens may be a soft spot in defenses against Listeria. "Evidence indicates that slicing and packaging of luncheon meats at retail deli counters presents a significant source of exposure to L. monocytogenes," it states. "Prevalence reported from these sources ranges from 3 to 5 percent in deli meat sliced at retail." But more studies are needed, because the samples that yielded the data were small, the report says. The data come from unpublished findings from New York State and one published study.
The USDA does not regulate retail delis, which are under the jurisdiction of the FDA and state and local health departments, according to FSIS officials. But the report recommends that the FSIS should increase comparisons of the levels of Listeria on RTE products at production plants and at retail delis.
The report also says that no firms have availed themselves of an option under the new rules to cite Listeria-control measures on their product labels. The provision was intended to give companies an incentive to install newer control technologies, with the idea that citing these measures on labels would confer a marketing advantage, FSIS spokesman Steven Cohen told CIDRAP News.
"This may be a way to differentiate their product from others," Cohen said. "It's a little early at this point to expect to see much of that. They would have to propose a label, and we'd evaluate it."
In other items, the report says most of the small and very small plants producing RTE products didn't receive or didn't know about the FSIS compliance guidelines for the Listeria regulations. Cohen said he was confident that all the firms were aware of the regulations, since inspectors meet weekly with plant managers, but there may not have been "100% penetration on all the supporting materials that were available."
The FSIS said it would accept comments on the report as well as on the Listeria rule itself until Jan 31, 2005. (See FSIS news release link below for details on how to submit comments.)
Dec 1 FSIS news release
Jun 6, 2003, CIDRAP News story on announcement of interim final rule on Listeria
Nov 2002 CIDRAP News story on requirement that plants test environmental surfaces for Listeria
CIDRAP News story on recent FDA Listeria risk assessment