We’ve all seen the news and the reports of food recalls and illnesses due to foodborne pathogens. This is scary news for everyone — scary for the business and for the consumer. On a daily basis, numerous precautions are taken to prevent such things. When it comes to food safety, employees in the deli, bakery, and other fresh departments at supermarkets, convenience stores, and other food retailers are on the front lines for delivering safe food to consumers. Exceptional food safety processes are vital and help reduce foodborne illnesses from originating within the store. Even with these precautions and processes, which dramatically decrease the likelihood of foodborne illness, one bacteria is especially resilient. This bacteria is Listeria monocytogenes. Listeria monocytogenes is a type of bacteria that can be difficult to prevent and control. It causes Listeriosis, a serious foodborne illness that sickens around 1,600 people each year, of which approximately 260 will die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition to illness and death, Listeriosis is responsible for almost $3 billion in economic costs, without even factoring in food industry repercussions such as loss of consumer confidence, associated recall expenses, or litigation expenses. It’s certainly an eye-opener for everyone in the food industry and one that should bring the priority of food safety to the highest level of store operations. The International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association (IDDBA), a nonprofit membership organization representing the dairy, deli, bakery, cheese, and supermarket foodservice industries, understands the seriousness of this issue and continues to make food safety education a top priority. In 2015, we will be focusing new education efforts on food safety through Safe Food Matters!, an inaugural year-long food safety initiative. First, let’s take a look at what makes Listeria monocytogenes tough to control. Then we’ll focus on how to educate and work together to mitigate outbreaks. Having spent most of my life in the food industry, I can attest to the difficulty in controlling Listeria monocytogenes. This bacteria is classified as psychrotrophic, meaning it’s able to grow at low temperatures. This makes growth inside department coolers sometimes difficult to control since it’s able to spread at temperatures considered too low for other bacteria to grow. Additionally, the bacteria is easily spread from food to equipment, equipment to food, and so on. This makes cross-contamination a real possibility. Delis can be particularly susceptible given the ready-to-eat foods (prepared salads, sliced meats and cheeses) found there and the continual handling of these different products. And, since many types of deli meats are sliced for the consumer, the deli slicer itself can be a source of Listeria monocytogenes contamination. According to 2010 statistics cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, of Listeriosis illnesses attributed to deli meat, 83 percent are associated with deli meat that was sliced and packaged at retail. Scary stuff. The good news is there are ways to manage the bacteria. So how do we limit the chances of a Listeria monocytogenes outbreak? Education is key. Taking preventive steps and focusing on best practices within a store’s fresh departments can decrease the potential for its growth and cross-contamination. Throughout 2015, we’re encouraging best practices among industry professionals to help curb Listeria monocytogenes contamination through a variety of educational tools, research, and events. These resources, available at iddba.org/safefoodmatters, are for everyone interested in learning more about this subject. Offerings consist of training tools, white papers, research, and member reimbursement for food safety certification. Food safety best practices and educational programs will be a focus of the upcoming 2015 Dairy-Deli-Bake Seminar & Expo in Atlanta, including a free ServSafe® certification class for attendees. We’re working hard to continually add new food safety materials and tools to the site. We encourage everyone to use the information, get the certification, and share the knowledge. Let’s work together – Safe Food Matters!