Hygiene guidelines for controlling Listeria monocytogenes during production of frozen vegetables have been published.

Work started after an outbreak connected to frozen sweetcorn produced by Greenyard in Hungary. The incident sickened at least 54 people with listeriosis in Australia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, and the United Kingdom. There were 10 deaths from 2015 to 2018. It was the first time a listeriosis outbreak in Europe was linked to quick-frozen vegetables.

PROFEL, the European Association of Fruit and Vegetable Processing Industries, is currently raising awareness about the new document. The aim is to ensure consumer safety by advising vegetable freezing companies on how to control Listeria in the production of quick-frozen vegetables and providing business-to-business and business-to-consumer customers with information on how frozen vegetables should be stored, defrosted and prepared.

The recommendations cover good practices and prerequisite programs, hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP), environmental sampling and risk communication toward users. It includes the production and food safety management of quick-frozen vegetables, starting from reception of raw materials and ending with packed end products.

EU endorsement
Items can be sold as single or mixed products with other quick-frozen vegetables or combined with other products such as rice, pasta, sauce, quick-frozen fish or meat.

Guidelines were endorsed in the Biological Safety of the Food Chain section of the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed in November. In an October meeting of the group, the Netherlands and Latvia had asked for further time to look at changes made with their experts.

They were prepared by the European frozen vegetable sector with Gent University as well as the European Commission and member states. Consultation also included Copa Cogeca, the Chilled Food Association, EuroCommerce, FoodDrinkEurope, Freshfel and BEUC.

Challenge tests on different frozen vegetables demonstrated growth of Listeria monocytogenes during defrosting and storage in a refrigerator.

Frozen vegetables, blanched and unblanched, should be regarded as not-ready-to-eat (nRTE). The guidelines recommend clear cooking, defrosting and storage instructions be communicated to consumers and B2B customers. Risk communication and information toward the users of quick-frozen vegetables must clearly state proper use to avoid potential abuse.

Michael Mayntz, PROFEL president, said: “These guidelines are a true milestone for vegetable freezing businesses and demonstrate the sector’s commitment to making our foods even safer. They support companies who can use them as a starting point for their own food safety management systems, good practices, and HACCP principles.”

Legislation changes?
Meanwhile, the latest workshop of the European Union Reference Laboratory (EURL) and National Reference Laboratories (NRLs) for Listeria monocytogenes earlier this year discussed a revision to microbiological criteria regulation (2073/2005).

These rules include 100 colony forming unit per gram limits in ready-to-eat (RTE) food unable to support the growth of Listeria monocytogenes during shelf life.

However, there are differences in interpretation between member states as to how the manufacturer demonstrates Listeria does not grow above permitted concentration in the products. Also, some outbreaks have been caused by products that complied with the law.

One idea being explored is RTE foods should not contain Listeria during their shelf life. Experts are looking at ways a plant would be exempt in an attempt to clarify interpretation of the legislation. Some measures would increase costs for businesses and are likely to lead to more requests to laboratories to investigate the growth of Listeria in foods.

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