A USDA food safety and inspection service report suggests that an interim final rule designed to reduce the incidence of Listeria monocytogenes (LM) in ready-to-eat (RTE) meat and poultry products is working.
The report shows that the overall safety of these products has improved because manufacturers have strengthened their control procedures, increased testing and taken additional steps to eliminate the pathogen.
"Under the Listeria rule, ready-to-eat meat and poultry products are safer and public health is being better protected," said agriculture under secretary for food safety Dr Elsa Murano.
"If progress continues at the current rate, we should achieve the Healthy People 2010 goal of lowering the incidence of listeriosis to 0.25 cases per 100,000 people."
The interim final rule on controlling LM was based upon a risk assessment for LM in ready-to-eat meat and poultry products. It requires all establishments producing RTE products that are exposed to the environment after cooking to consider LM a hazard likely to occur, develop written programs to control it and to verify the effectiveness of those programs through testing.
Establishments must share testing data and plant generated information relevant to their controls with FSIS. Plants that rely on sanitation measures alone to control LM receive the greatest level of scrutiny from the agency.
The report found that following the implementation of the rule, many plants have made improvements to address the problem of LM. In some cases, antimicrobial ingredients have been added to product formulations to inhibit the growth of LM and post-processing treatment has been installed to eliminate the pathogen.
In addition, the report found that plants have either initiated or greatly increased their testing for Listeria or Listeria-like organisms on plant surfaces that come in contact with products after cooking. These testing data are available to FSIS inspection personnel as a result of the interim final rule and are used to determine the effectiveness of sanitation and other control measures.
The report was prepared by a 28-member FSIS assessment team, which evaluated and measured the effectiveness of all aspects of the interim final rule, as well as the rule's effect on public health, consumer education and its economic impact. Implementation of the rule in small and very small plants and retail establishments was also assessed.
The team made recommendations in such areas as inspector training, product sampling, retail food handling and communicating to small businesses.
In November 2002, FSIS issued a directive placing plants producing high and medium risk ready-to-eat products that did not have a validated testing regime for LM under an intensified testing programme. Plants that did have a validated testing programme but chose not to share its testing data with FSIS on an ongoing basis were also subject to the intensified testing programme.
These provisions were also made part of the interim final rule.
Consequently, the number of recalls due to LM decreased from 40 to 14 between 2002 and 2003, and the volume of product recalled decreased from approximately 32 million to 55,000 pounds. Additionally, between 2002 and 2003, the percentage of positive LM regulatory samples fell by 25 percent.