Managers and employees at more than half of the delis in a recent study reported the retail operations are failing to meet U.S. Food Code specifications because meat slicers are not cleaned often enough. Meat slicing machines in retail delis are notorious for harboring Listeria bacteria, as well as contributing to the reputation deli meats have for being a major source of listeriosis infections, according to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Anyone who thinks “mortality” is too strong of a word to be associated with deli slicers has only to look to Canada’s 2008 listeriosis outbreak where cold cuts from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto resulted in 57 illnesses and 22 deaths. That 39 percent fatality rate was blamed on the certain areas of meat slicers that were difficult to access for cleaning. delimeatslicer_406x250“Listeria monocytogenes causes the third highest number of food borne illness deaths — an estimated 255 — in the United States annually, after nontyphoidal Salmonella species and Toxoplasma gondii,” the CDC reports. “Deli meats are a major source of listeriosis illnesses, and meats sliced and packaged at retail delis are the major source of listeriosis illnesses attributed to deli meat,” according to research in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from CDC. “Mechanical slicers pose cross-contamination risks in delis and are an important source of Listeria cross-contamination. Reducing Listeria contamination of sliced meats in delis will likely reduce Listeria illnesses and outbreaks. Researchers with the CDC’s Environmental Health Specialists Network (EHS-Net) interviewed managers and employees about how often retail deli slicers were fully cleaned, which includes disassembling, cleaning and sanitizing the machines. The Food Code specifies the minimum frequency for cleaning is once every four hours. Interviews with staff from 298 randomly selected delis showed that 54.2 percent of the delis failed to clean their slicers every four hours. “Because independent and smaller delis had lower frequencies of slicer cleaning, prevention efforts should focus on these types of delis,” the researchers report. “Chain-owned delis and delis with more customers, more slicers, required manager food safety training, food safety–knowledgeable workers, written slicer-cleaning policies, and food safety–certified managers fully cleaned their slicers more frequently than did other types of delis, according to deli managers or workers.” (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)