Customers of a Stop & Shop in the Greater Boston area should monitor themselves for symptoms of Listeria infection for the next two months if they recently ate meat or cheese from the grocery store’s deli.

The Rhode Island Department of Health posted a consumer alert this weekend urging anyone who still has sliced meat or cheese from the store in Warwick, RI, to immediately throw it away and sanitize their kitchens and refrigerators. Warwick is about 70 miles southwest of Boston, but is considered part of the “Greater Boston” area.

As of Sunday night, neither the grocery chain nor the state health department had posted any information about how the Listeria monocytogenes risk was discovered. However, the deli is temporarily closed for cleaning.

Anyone who ate any sliced meat or cheese from the deli at the store at 300 Quaker Lane in Warwick that was sold between Jan. 18 and Feb. 2 is at risk, according to the health department. Health officials had not confirmed any illnesses in association with food from the deli location as of the posting of the consumer alert.

It can take up to 70 days after exposure for symptoms of listeria infection to develop. So anyone who has eaten sliced meat or cheese from the deli should monitor themselves for the signs of infection in the coming weeks.

Sometimes listeriosis symptoms begin within a few days. Consequently, anyone who has eaten sliced meat or cheese from the deli recently should immediately seek medical attention if they have become ill. Specific medical tests are required to diagnosis Listeria infection, so people should be sure to tell their doctors about the possible exposure from the deli.

Symptoms can include high fever, severe headache, neck stiffness and nausea.

“Listeriosis can also cause miscarriages and stillbirths, as well as serious and sometimes fatal infections in those with weakened immune systems, such as infants, the elderly and people with HIV infection or people undergoing chemotherapy,” according to the state health department’s consumer alert.

“Consumers looking for additional information on this consumer alert can visit the store at 300 Quaker Lane in Warwick, or call Stop & Shop customer service at 800-767-7772.”

A case in point
Although the consumer alert did not mention it, on Jan. 18 a state inspector found health code violations involving slicers at the Stop & Shop deli.

“Inspector observed an employee spray sanitizer on a slicer and then wipe the slicer down with a paper towel. Inspector asked employee for the sanitizer label with directions and reviewed the sanitizing process,” according tot the inspection report.

“The deli slicer is in poor repair, a seal was cracked. Deli slicer was taken out of service during inspection.”

To view a larger version of this graphic from the Food and Drug Administration about the proper cleaning of meat slicers, please click on the image.

Public health officials have identified inadequate cleaning of retail deli slicers as an all too common problem — based on inspection records and reports from deli managers and employees.

The construction of slicing machines, which makes them difficult to clean, and the fact Listeria monocytogenes can multiply very fast in food residue at room temperature provide the perfect combination for the contamination of meats and cheeses.

Because of the well known pathogen problems with deli slicers, the federal Food Code requires the slicers be taken apart and cleaned once every four hours. That’s not happening more than half the time, according to a report in 2017 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Researchers with the CDC’s Environmental Health Specialists Network interviewed managers and employees about how often retail deli slicers were fully cleaned, which includes disassembling, cleaning and sanitizing the machines.

Interviews with staff from 298 randomly selected delis showed that 54.2 percent of the delis failed to clean their slicers every four hours.

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 CDC.

In 2008, a Listeria outbreak traced to cold cuts from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto resulted in 57 illnesses and 22 deaths. Public health officials blamed the high fatality rate, 39 percent, on certain areas of meat slicers that are difficult to access for cleaning.

“Because independent and smaller delis had lower frequencies of slicer cleaning, prevention efforts should focus on these types of delis,” the CDC researchers reported.

“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.”

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