USDA to deli meat producers: Test your plants for Listeria, or we will

Nov 19, 2002 (CIDRAP News) – The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced yesterday that it will begin testing environmental surfaces for Listeria in processing plants that produce deli meats and hot dogs unless the plants do their own tests and share the results with the USDA.

The plan is a response to the recent listeriosis outbreak in the Northeast, which has involved 52 cases and seven deaths. Elsa Murano, USDA's undersecretary for food safety, announced the testing plan at a "summit" meeting on Listeria monocytogenes yesterday in Washington, DC.

Until now, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has tested products at ready-to-eat meat and poultry plants but has not tested plants and equipment. In a Nov 6 speech, Murano said that approach had failed to prevent the listeriosis outbreak, which was linked with turkey deli meat. The outbreak led to a record-setting, 27 million–pound recall by Wampler Foods in Franconia, Pa., and a 200,000-pound recall by J. L. Foods Co. in Camden, N.J. Those two plants were reopened last week after the FSIS inspected and approved their operations.

In a USDA news release, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman called the new FSIS testing plan "an aggressive and targeted approach to further reduce the risk of listeriosis from consumption of contaminated ready-to-eat products."

Under the plan, plants producing deli meats and hot dogs without an environmental testing program will be subject to intensified FSIS testing. "This intensified testing program will consist of increased testing of the final product, and testing of food contact surfaces and plant environment," the USDA said. Plants that do their own environmental testing but don't share the data with the FSIS will also be subject to increased USDA testing. For plants that do environmental tests and share all results with the USDA, the agency will test only final products.

The new approach will not apply to producers of lard, pork rinds, and other products in which pathogens are not expected to survive processing, officials said.

"There is a vast amount of data generated through environmental testing by processing facilities," Murano said in the news release. "Making it available to USDA will help our inspectors anticipate problems through proactive analysis of contamination trends at these establishments."

The public is invited to comment on the new testing directive until Dec 2; the FSIS said it will implement the plan Dec 9. The directive is posted on the FSIS Web site (see link below).

Environmental testing by the FSIS will focus mainly on surfaces that products touch after cooking or any other pathogen-killing step, agency spokeswoman Andrea McNally told CIDRAP News. She said tests will not be limited to L monocytogenes, but will include other microbes, depending on the product and circumstances.

McNally said the FSIS's existing staff of inspectors is expected to be sufficient to handle the increased testing program. The agency has inspectors on duty daily at all 6,500 meat, poultry, and egg processing plants in the country, she said.

In a backgrounder statement, the FSIS said that data gathered during the Northeast listeriosis outbreak, along with findings from other investigations, convinced the agency that some meat plants "are not adequately addressing the potential for bacterial contamination."

Plants that produce ready-to-eat meats are not required to do their own testing of either finished products or food-contact surfaces for L monocytogenes, though some larger plants may test those things, according to McNally. Consumer groups have criticized the USDA for not implementing a rule, proposed during the Clinton administration, that would require companies to conduct their own tests. The FSIS has said it will establish a rule after completing a formal scientific assessment, now under way, of how Listeria contamination occurs. Murano told the Associated Press yesterday that the risk assessment will be finished by Dec 2003.

In related developments, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said late last week that the case count in the listeriosis outbreak had reached 52, an increase of 2 since the previous update on Nov 4. The numbers of deaths and miscarriages due to the outbreak remained at 7 and 3, respectively. The number of states with cases increased to nine with the addition of Illinois, which had one case. The CDC said L monocytogenes isolates from 94 other recent listeriosis patients in the Northeast did not match the outbreak type.

FSIS officials said last week that Wampler Foods and J. L. Foods had reopened after meeting FSIS requirements for doing so. Wampler Foods, owned by Pilgrim's Pride, had shut down Oct 12 after one product sample and 25 environmental samples tested positive for L monocytogenes. Two of the environmental samples matched the outbreak strain, but the product sample and other environmental samples did not, according to the CDC. J. L. Foods suspended production Nov 2 after tests showed some products and one environmental sample contained Listeria that matched the outbreak strain.

After the product recall, further tests at J. L. Foods revealed no more products contaminated with Listeria, FSIS spokeswoman Andrea McNally told CIDRAP News Nov 14. At Wampler Foods, testing of an additional 78 product samples after the recall revealed one sample with Listeria, but it did not match the outbreak strain, according to McNally. She reported that both plants submitted corrective action plans that were acceptable to the FSIS.

See also:

FSIS Nov 18 news release

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