The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have released a detailed draft risk assessment aimed at reducing Listeria monocytogenes in deli products reaching consumers’ plates. The 179-page document, posted online Friday evening, outlines several ways retail delis can reduce the risk of Listeria contamination. Listeria has proven to be a tricky pathogen for public health to tackle. While listeriosis, the disease caused by Listeria, is rare, its fatality rate is high. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 1,500 people fall ill with listeriosis each year. Of those, nearly all will be hospitalized and 260 patients will die. Around 16 percent of listeriosis patients will lose their lives, while for the all-too-common salmonellosis, the fatality rate is about half of one percent. While there is plenty of data on the deadliness of listeriosis, little is known about the transfer of the pathogen at the retail level, according to the government. The U.S.-focused study released last week, which quantitatively links certain deli practices to potential public health outcomes, is “the first of its kind,” according to the agencies. The study was designed to apply to all sizes of retail deli establishments, from small independent operations to the deli departments in large supermarkets. “The risk assessment will be a tremendous asset in our efforts to reduce the 1,600 illnesses and 260 deaths attributed to this pathogen annually,” said USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen. “Essential information has been gained from these findings, including the fact that once Lm (Listeria monocytogenes) enters a retail environment, it has the potential to spread due to cross contamination. This assessment highlights the importance of our work to prevent Lm from entering the retail environment in the first place, and provides a significant tool towards this effort to protect consumers and prevent foodborne illness.” The study reinforces the fact that FDA’s Food Code recommendations can help operators of retail delis reduce the risk of L. monocytogenes contamination, say the agencies. The study found that there is no single preventive practice that retail delis should employ, but a combination of several best practices can significantly reduce the risk of contamination:

  • Storage temperature. If all refrigerated, ready-to-eat foods are stored at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or below, as the FDA Food Code recommends, at least 9 of every 100 cases of listeriosis caused by contaminated deli products could be prevented.
  • Growth inhibitors. If all deli products that support Lm growth were reformulated to include growth inhibitor, 96 of every 100 cases of listeriosis caused by contaminated deli products could be prevented. While this finding is significant, the actual benefit may be smaller in part because growth inhibitor may be used in concentrations not effective throughout the shelf life of a food, and it can affect the flavor.
  • Cross contamination. The predicted risk of listeriosis dramatically increases in retail delis as a result of cross contamination, with slicers remaining a particular challenge. Cross-contamination is particularly difficult to eliminate, but the study shows proper cleaning and personal hygiene make a difference.
  • Contamination of incoming product. If current levels of Lm in ready-to-eat foods received by the retail deli from processing establishments were reduced by half, 22 of every 100 cases of listeriosis caused by contaminated deli products could be prevented. This finding suggests that continued efforts to prevent low levels of Lm contamination during processing, even on products that do not support growth of the pathogen, reduces the risk from these products and other ready-to-eat foods that can be subsequently cross contaminated in the retail delicatessens.

FDA offers a number of food safety resources for retail delis online and FSIS said it is planning to provide outreach materials for retailers that handle ready-to-eat meat and poultry products. The agencies are holding a joint meeting to discuss the new study on May 22. Those interested in attending can attend register here.