Fight for Food Safety
Fight for Food Safety

Listeria isn’t leaving (unfortunately)

December 14, 2013

I spent some time in my last two columns dissecting recent trends involving recalls for E. coli O157:H7 and allergens. While E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks and recalls were experiencing a sharp decline, recalls involving undeclared allergens seemed to be rocketing upward at an unprecedented pace.

Although I found these trends interesting, I was exceptionally curious to survey how industry was ranking with respect to its control of Listeria monocytogenes. What I learned surprised me.

The CDC estimates that, every year, Listeria causes approximately 1,600 illnesses and 260 deaths. The largest Listeria outbreak in U.S. history occurred in 2011, when contaminated cantaloupe from a single company sickened 1,476 and killed 33 across 28 states. The owners of the company were recently charged criminally for failing to adequately control Listeria in their operations.

As we all know, in addition to causing large-scale fruit and vegetable foodborne illness outbreaks, Listeria can also cause large-scale outbreaks involving meat. For this reason, FSIS regulations require facilities processing ready-to-eat meats to develop, implement and closely follow compliant Listeria-control programs. The challenge with Listeria, of course, is that once it finds harborage in the processing environment, it can be very difficult to find and eliminate.

This may be evidenced, in part, by the increasing numbers of recalls being announced for Listeria. In 2009, there were only eight recalls relating to the presence of Listeria in ready-to-eat meat products, involving only about 50,000 pounds. In 2010, the number of pounds of meat products recalled for the presence of Listeria increased to nearly 400,000. And this upward trend does not appear to be slowing.

In 2011, the number of recalls jumped to 11, and more than 500,000 pounds of meat was recalled. In 2012, another 500,000 pounds of meat was recalled in more than 16 separate recalls. So far, in 2013, there have been more than 10 recalls involving an astonishing 1 million pounds of ready-to-eat products.

So, with E. coli  O157:H7 recalls declining, FSIS will likely fill the void by directing additional regulatory attention toward Listeria control and testing. With increased focus and testing by the agency on Listeria, more of the pathogen that otherwise might have escaped detection will likely be found, and more recalls for Listeriawill be continue to be announced.

Make sure you carefully review and, if needed, reassess your Listeria-control programs to maximize your chances of both finding and controlling any Listeria that might be lurking somewhere undetected in your processing environment.

 That way, even if if Listeria isn’t leaving any time soon, it will, hopefully, at least leave you alone. 

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