USDA announces rules to control Listeria in deli meats

June 6, 2003 (CIDRAP News) – Starting next fall, meat companies will have to step up their efforts to keep Listeria monocytogenes out of deli meats and hot dogs, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced yesterday.

The new rule will require companies to choose one of three approaches for controlling Listeria in ready-to-eat (RTE) meat and poultry products that are exposed to the environment after cooking. The most stringent approach calls for separate Listeria-killing and growth-suppressing treatments, both applied after cooking. Firms that choose the least stringent approach—general sanitation only—will be subject to more frequent USDA inspections, the agency said.

All companies will have to test plant surfaces and equipment for Listeria, but they will not be required routinely to test their products, said Steven Cohen, a spokesman for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in Washington, DC.

"There would be circumstances under which we'd expect them to test products, but only after a positive finding on a food contact surface," Cohen told CIDRAP News. He said the new rule does not specify how often firms will be expected to test surfaces and equipment. Companies will have to share their test results and information about Listeria controls with the FSIS.

"This rule encourages plants to incorporate technologies that can kill the bacteria or prevent its growth after cooking and packaging," said Undersecretary for Food Safety Dr. Elsa Murano in a USDA news release. "Furthermore, FSIS will verify through testing that plant controls are working as intended, focusing its resources to attain the greatest benefit to public health."

An estimated 2,493 cases of listeriosis, with 499 deaths, occur each year in the United States as a result of eating food contaminated with L monocytogenes, according to the USDA. The disease is most dangerous for fetuses, newborns, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems. Last summer and fall, a listeriosis outbreak linked to turkey deli meat sickened at least 52 people, killed 7, and caused 3 miscarriages.

The new regulation will require firms to prepare a written plan for Listeria control, the USDA said. Plants must choose one of the following approaches:

  • Alternative 1: Use both a "post-lethality" (post-cooking) treatment and a chemical growth inhibitor for L monocytogenes on RTE products. FSIS inspectors will focus on verifying that the post-lethality treatment works. The post-cooking treatment typically involves heating packaged products with steam or hot water, said Cohen.
  • Alternative 2: Use either a post-lethality treatment or a growth inhibitor. Firms using this approach will be inspected more often than those using the first alternative.
  • Alternative 3: Use sanitation measures only. Firms using this approach will be inspected most often.

Irradiation is not an option for killing Listeria on RTE meats at this point because it has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for this use. A coalition of food industry and medical groups petitioned the FDA in August 1999 to allow irradiation of RTE meat and poultry, along with fruits and vegetables, but the FDA has not announced a decision.

The new Listeria rule also permits firms to put information about Listeria control measures on product labels, the USDA said. "FSIS believes this will be one way for consumers to be able to identify products with enhanced safety specific to this pathogen," the agency stated.

The regulation was presaged in February by the FSIS's release of a scientific risk assessment for Listeria contamination in RTE meat and poultry products. The assessment indicated that the use of post-packaging pasteurization or growth inhibitors could yield dramatic public health benefits. The report also said the combination of product treatments, sanitation, and testing would be more effective than any of those measures alone.

The background of the new rules also includes a "risk ranking" conducted by the FDA in 2001. Cohen said that study showed that sliced turkey and sliced chicken pose the highest risk for Listeria contamination. "If it is cooked, taken out of the bag, sliced, and put back in the bag, that period of time outside the bag is the critical interval where you can have a contamination event," he said.

Some consumer groups have criticized the FSIS in recent years for not requiring meat companies to take specific Listeria-control steps. The agency said it needed to complete the risk assessment before writing new rules, asserting that they required a strong scientific basis.

As a result of the listeriosis outbreak last summer and fall, the FSIS concluded that some plants were not doing enough to control the pathogen. In December the agency announced that plants producing hot dogs and deli meats without an environmental testing program would be subject to intensified testing by the FSIS. Previously the FSIS had tested RTE products but not food-contact surfaces and equipment.

The new rules drew positive initial comments from industry groups but criticism from some consumer food-safety groups.

J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, stated that the FSIS "deserves credit for generally using a risk-based approach to develop a new regulation aimed at enhancing the safety of ready-to-eat meat and poultry products. Clearly, FSIS recognizes that all ready-to-eat meat and poultry products are not the same either in the way they are processed or in the risk they may pose to the consumer population that is at higher risk of contracting listeriosis." Boyle's comments were published on the institute's web site.

Caroline Smith de Waal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest complained that the regulation could put companies "in charge of designing their own food safety systems without adequate government oversight," according to an Associated Press report.

The rule is to be published in the Federal Register June 6 and will take effect 120 days later, the USDA said. To evaluate the rule's effectiveness, the FSIS will take comments on it for 18 months after its publication

See also:

FSIS announcement of Listeria rule

FSIS backgrounder on rule

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