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Food Makers Told Not to Change Routines for Listeria Tests

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has told producers of ready-to-eat foods not to veer from their regular manufacturing, sanitation and food-safety procedures when federal inspectors test for Listeria monocytogenes in their processing plants.

According to the notice published Wednesday, routine sampling to test for Listeria is conducted about once every four years at most facilities that make ready-to-eat foods, such as hot dogs and luncheon meats, or after a problem is suspected.

But too many establishments are making temporary changes before inspectors in the monitoring program arrive, or during the sampling, presumably to reduce the chances of positive test results, the FSIS notice implies.

“By altering routine practices, establishments may make changes that are not consistent with their documented food-safety system and that impede FSIS’s ability to assess the safety of the product,” said the notice, which was signed by Daniel Engeljohn, assistant administrator for the Office of Policy and Program Development.   

Some of the examples of altered practices:

- Increasing the use of sanitizer only during the testing

- “Drastically” reducing the typical production time (i.e. by more than two hours in a typical eight-hour shift), the lot size or the number of workers handling the product

- Selectively not processing higher-risk products, such as sliced meats

- Not using particular equipment previously associated with a positive test for Listeria

“Such practices can interfere with FSIS’s assessment of routine conditions or corrective actions at the establishment and may limit FSIS’s ability to determine whether post-lethality exposed RTE meat and poultry products are not adulterated,” Engeljohn wrote.

If a company changes practices without a “supportable rationale,” FSIS personnel should notify their district offices and reschedule the sampling, the notice said.

Food makers who violate the notice may face suspension of inspection, which would halt production. FSIS will review reports from plants where testing has been conducted to see if further action is needed, Engeljohn wrote.

Listeria monocytogenes is one of the most dangerous foodborne pathogens in the U.S. food supply. Although listeriosis is infrequent, relative to other foodborne infections such as those caused by Salmonella, it has a higher rate of hospitalizations and fatalities.

Listeria is killed by pasteurization and cooking; however, in some ready-to-eat foods, such as deli meats, contamination can occur after factory cooking but before packaging. Unlike most bacteria, Listeria can survive and multiply under refrigeration.

When Listeria bacteria get into a food-processing factory or on food-processing equipment, they can live there for years, and create the persistent potential for contamination.

© Food Safety News
  • jmunsell

    Even the venerable FSIS is guilty of sampling product which is produced (by agency mandate) in a fashion different from the normal production protocol. Here’s but one example: an agency inspector required my employees to utilize an abnormal protocol when making breaded beef strips. Every production day we tested the strips to determine the % of breading we applied to the strips. If we exceeded 30% breading, the product would need to be labeled “Fritters”, but our goal was to label the products as “Strips”, requiring us to keep the breading at less than 30%.
    IN MY ABSENCE, the inspector required one lady on the breading line to separate herself from the line, go to an empty table, and apply breading to 10# of raw meat. Once she was away from the fast-paced breading line, she was insulated from the time restraints found on the breading line, took her time, and applied a most liberal coating of breading, under the intense scrutiny of the inspector. The breading test revealed a % of over 30%. When I arrived back at work, the inspector demanded that I no longer use our supply of “Steak Strip” labels, and demanded that I order replacement labels stating “Fritters”. I unsuccessfully attempted to convince him that his mandated version of a breading test was abnormal, and did not represent our normal breading %’s. Indeed, the normal breading % on the high-speed line was 26% – 29%, and we found it nearly impossible to get up to 30%, because our breaders simply lacked the time required to apply a heavier coat of breading. They had to keep up to speed with incoming beef strips, lacking the time to slow down and apply more breading. When the inspector’s supervisor arrived, calmer heads prevailed, and the inspector was required use normal production and breading protocol for testing purposes.
    Another example: after we experienced 3 consecutive days of E.coli positives in our ground beef on Feb 19, 20 & 21, 2002, the agency commenced testing of subsequent ground beef sampling for 15 consecutive days, complying with agency regulations at that time. For a few days, the agency decided to take 3 tests per day, rather than one a day for consecutive days. What a nightmare! And the agency knew it, relishing their harassment of me and my crew. Since we dismantled our grinding equipment after each test, and washed and sanitized all equipment parts, reassembled the parts, and then ground again for the next test, one employee and I were kept busy full time grinding, disassembling, cleaning, reassembling, and copiously documenting all source information for the meat used for each grind. What a rat race, and a monumental waste of employee time. And why? Because the Minneapolis District Office decided to unilaterally change sampling protocol to fit their personal biases. Instead of the required 1 per day sample collection, they required 3 per day, tormenting us with worry & dread. This was a turkey shoot, and we were the turkeys.
    Bottom line: FSIS requires the industry to be accountable to utilize normal production protocol when FSIS tests for listeria. This is good. However, we could develop countless examples of how the agency is not personally accountable for its own diversion from common sense & science-based sampling protocol. When corrupt agency personnel decide to target a plant for unjustified enforcement actions & closure, the agency enjoys carte blanche to design whatever types of abnormal production protocol it concocts to fabricate falsified evidence which ostensibly proves the plant to be insanitary. FSIS District Offices, EIAO’s, Front Line Supervisors and Inspectors must be required to comply with protocol, and be accountable for their misbehavior. As long as the agency’s Office of Field Operations allows, in fact ENDORSES such amateurish misbehavior, FSIS adroitly avoids accountability. FSIS is NOT accountable to anyone!
    John Munsell

  • Minkpuppy

    This is fine and dandy for Listeria sampling but what about the monkey business that goes on in poultry plants when a salmonella series is in effect? The chicken pluckers are notorious for cranking up chlorine levels in the chiller to well above what they normally use in order to pass their series. I would like to see the agency take this one step further and order poultry plants to keep all chlorine and antimicrobial rinses at the same levels they normally use during the salmonella testing as well.
    John, I can vouch that your experience with the Minneapolis District IS NOT representative of all the District Offices. As I’ve stated before, if any of us in my district acted like that, we’d be out on our butts with no back up from the Agency whatsoever. From my experience, managers like that tend to treat the inspectors the same way they treat the plants and constantly battle the inspector’s union as well because they don’t want to follow the labor management agreements. They’re on power trips and eventually it will bite them in the rear.
    I have high hopes that Al Almanza’s proposals to realign the districts to save money will eliminate the bad apples in upper levels of management. Hopefully, the new DM’s of the new districts will by like the one in my district and will be adamant about following policy. I have worked with Mr. Almanza in the past and he did a lot to change and improve the way things were done in his former District Manager position.
    I haven’t seen any action taken yet against the individuals you mentioned but often those of us in the field don’t hear about the investigations until suddenly someone is fired. Most likely, there will suddenly be a new district with a whole new district manager and the bad apples will “retire”.
    I hope your recent articles and those written by Doc Raymond about your experiences got the attention of OPEER. They seem to be doing a lot of investigations around here lately…

  • jmunsell

    Dear Minkpuppy:
    My perception is that Administrator Al Almanza and Under Sec Dr. Elisabeth Hagen not only have the smarts to do a great job, but they also WANT to do what is right, and they have my full endorsement. Only time will tell if they will be authorized to implement truly meaningful improvements.
    And yes, there’s been a total change of management at the Minneapolis District Office since their actions against me in 2002. However, the 6 Meatingplace blogs by Dr. Raymond earlier this year revealing the agency’s decision to assess an inordinately high number of NR’s against targetted MT plants and alleged agency reviews of 15 plants reveals that current management still wants to have fun in Montana, for whatever reason? Since Dr. Raymond’s blogs, the # of NR’s has been lowered to be more in line with the rest of the country.
    I don’t share your optimism for OPEER’s ability, even its willingness, to conduct thorough investigations, or even to allow unrestricted evidence gathering. But, that is a story for another day.
    John Munsell

  • http://www.phfspec.com Peter Cocotas

    This is an argument for less regulation not more. The idea that they test every four years and that the processor would know when they test is appalling.

  • doc raymond

    Peter, the plants test on a regular basis, frequency dependant upon the interventions used. Minkpuppy, you and I both know the nasal irritation from the odor of chlorine is much higher when a Salmonella Set is being performed. And increases even more if an early rinse comes back positive.

  • John Munsell

    Even the venerable FSIS is guilty of sampling product which is produced (by agency mandate) in a fashion different from the normal production protocol. Here’s but one example: an agency inspector required my employees to utilize an abnormal protocol when making breaded beef strips. Every production day we tested the strips to determine the % of breading we applied to the strips. If we exceeded 30% breading, the product would need to be labeled “Fritters”, but our goal was to label the products as “Strips”, requiring us to keep the breading at less than 30%.
    IN MY ABSENCE, the inspector required one lady on the breading line to separate herself from the line, go to an empty table, and apply breading to 10# of raw meat. Once she was away from the fast-paced breading line, she was insulated from the time restraints found on the breading line, took her time, and applied a most liberal coating of breading, under the intense scrutiny of the inspector. The breading test revealed a % of over 30%. When I arrived back at work, the inspector demanded that I no longer use our supply of “Steak Strip” labels, and demanded that I order replacement labels stating “Fritters”. I unsuccessfully attempted to convince him that his mandated version of a breading test was abnormal, and did not represent our normal breading %’s. Indeed, the normal breading % on the high-speed line was 26% – 29%, and we found it nearly impossible to get up to 30%, because our breaders simply lacked the time required to apply a heavier coat of breading. They had to keep up to speed with incoming beef strips, lacking the time to slow down and apply more breading. When the inspector’s supervisor arrived, calmer heads prevailed, and the inspector was required use normal production and breading protocol for testing purposes.
    Another example: after we experienced 3 consecutive days of E.coli positives in our ground beef on Feb 19, 20 & 21, 2002, the agency commenced testing of subsequent ground beef sampling for 15 consecutive days, complying with agency regulations at that time. For a few days, the agency decided to take 3 tests per day, rather than one a day for consecutive days. What a nightmare! And the agency knew it, relishing their harassment of me and my crew. Since we dismantled our grinding equipment after each test, and washed and sanitized all equipment parts, reassembled the parts, and then ground again for the next test, one employee and I were kept busy full time grinding, disassembling, cleaning, reassembling, and copiously documenting all source information for the meat used for each grind. What a rat race, and a monumental waste of employee time. And why? Because the Minneapolis District Office decided to unilaterally change sampling protocol to fit their personal biases. Instead of the required 1 per day sample collection, they required 3 per day, tormenting us with worry & dread. This was a turkey shoot, and we were the turkeys.
    Bottom line: FSIS requires the industry to be accountable to utilize normal production protocol when FSIS tests for listeria. This is good. However, we could develop countless examples of how the agency is not personally accountable for its own diversion from common sense & science-based sampling protocol. When corrupt agency personnel decide to target a plant for unjustified enforcement actions & closure, the agency enjoys carte blanche to design whatever types of abnormal production protocol it concocts to fabricate falsified evidence which ostensibly proves the plant to be insanitary. FSIS District Offices, EIAO’s, Front Line Supervisors and Inspectors must be required to comply with protocol, and be accountable for their misbehavior. As long as the agency’s Office of Field Operations allows, in fact ENDORSES such amateurish misbehavior, FSIS adroitly avoids accountability. FSIS is NOT accountable to anyone!
    John Munsell

  • John Munsell

    Dear Minkpuppy:
    My perception is that Administrator Al Almanza and Under Sec Dr. Elisabeth Hagen not only have the smarts to do a great job, but they also WANT to do what is right, and they have my full endorsement. Only time will tell if they will be authorized to implement truly meaningful improvements.
    And yes, there’s been a total change of management at the Minneapolis District Office since their actions against me in 2002. However, the 6 Meatingplace blogs by Dr. Raymond earlier this year revealing the agency’s decision to assess an inordinately high number of NR’s against targetted MT plants and alleged agency reviews of 15 plants reveals that current management still wants to have fun in Montana, for whatever reason? Since Dr. Raymond’s blogs, the # of NR’s has been lowered to be more in line with the rest of the country.
    I don’t share your optimism for OPEER’s ability, even its willingness, to conduct thorough investigations, or even to allow unrestricted evidence gathering. But, that is a story for another day.
    John Munsell

  • CSWaters

    When the plants perform their own testing, as you state, on a regular basis, are the test results made available to the FSIS and to the public? Why does the FSIS only perform routine testing in those plants once every four years? That doesn’t sound like “routine” to me…or, only AFTER a problem arises? …and then to find out that the once-in-four-years’ testing is flawed! Is this what FSIS calls Food Safety?
    FSIS – Fools Say It’s Safe.