More than 80 comments have been submitted on plans to update Listeria monocytogenes rules concerning ready-to-eat (RTE) food in Europe.

Many submissions were against the proposals and raised concerns about how they would work in practice as well as issues around challenge testing and the fact that a zero tolerance approach puts companies off testing and results in problems not being discovered.

The majority of respondents were either companies or business associations. More than a quarter came from the UK while 13 were from France and 12 from Spain.

The new rules would apply to RTE foods, other than those intended for infants and special medical purposes that are able to support the growth of Listeria monocytogenes. The earliest the regulation will become applicable is January 2026.

The Chilled Food Association said the current legislation is effective when enforced and does not need to be changed. The group added legislation and guidance was not being enforced effectively or risk-focused in those countries where rates have escalated.

Lack of support for changes
Comments from groups such as the Food and Drink Federation, Dairy UK, and Provision Trade Federation, supported the position of the Industry Listeria Group, which said proposed changes were a move away from the current risk-based approach to a hazard-based law.

“It is likely that extending the not detected of Listeria monocytogenes in 25-gram and having to prove that the product will not exceed the limit of 100 cfu/g throughout the remaining shelf life, will result in issues when products are produced in one member state and distributed in another.”

Respondents were also worried that having a zero tolerance during shelf life may result in products testing negative when leaving the control of the food business while later in the chain testing positive without a clear view on the history of sampled products, such as temperature abuse in the distribution chain.

The Czech Agriculture and Food Inspection Authority (SZPI) said the amendment brings more obligations and financial burdens both for control authorities and the food industry.

Pilgrims Europe said it was “deeply concerned” about the proposals.

“The control of Listeria monocytogenes in food manufacture is achieved via good hygiene practices, adequate environmental monitoring, historical trending, HACCP and adhering to an appropriate shelf-life,” said the company, whose products include ready-to-eat chicken and pork, ready meals, meat-free products and snacks.

“We do not believe the proposals will advance food safety and will not obtain the goal of reversing the increasing rate of listeriosis in some member states. With respect to the footprint of our business, especially our unique situation of having businesses in the EU, Northern Ireland and Great Britain, we would also have concerns about the enforcement across these three different locations.”

Challenge test concerns
Greencore, a provider of convenience foods, said the plans could lead to a reduction in environmental monitoring and more industry reliance on challenge testing as a control.

“A move towards this approach could give food businesses a false sense of security whilst ongoing and continuous controls need to be the focus. Testing does not make a product safe and is merely a sampling exercise and should never replace good hygiene practices, HACCP and best practice shelf-life principles.”

A joint submission from the European Sprouted Seeds Association and Freshfel Europe – European Fresh Produce Association said while complete absence of Listeria monocytogenes should always be the goal, for certain foods, such as raw fruit and vegetables, it is not feasible.

“All efforts put on end product control, including challenge testing, divert financial resources away from cleaning and disinfection and environmental hygiene monitoring, which are critical prerequisite requirements of HACCP. The challenge test cannot replicate factory conditions, nor can it replace the volume of experimental data and professional knowledge.

“Not detecting Listeria monocytogenes in a 25-gram sample does not guarantee absence in a whole batch, and if Listeria monocytogenes is detected in a 25-gram sample, it does not imply that the whole batch is contaminated.”

Consequences of having a zero-tolerance limit are that testing on finished products will reduce, as seen in the United States, due to the fear of finding Listeria monocytogenes and facing product recalls, with the associated damage to brand reputation and cost to industry, said the European Dairy Association.

EuroCommerce, which represents the retail and wholesale sector, said the move could trigger unnecessary product recalls, which could lead to food waste, even when Listeria is detected at low levels that do not pose a food safety risk at the end of the product’s shelf life.

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