CHICAGO — There is a war on against deadly Listeria, and the facts on the ground are changing in some dramatic ways. Ten generals in that war took to the stage here Tuesday at 2017 Food Safety Summit for reports on what they called “The Latest in Listeria Control.”
Few Americans paid much attention to Listeria until about 20 years ago when a fatal Listeria outbreak sickened 101 people in 10 states and resulted in a stunning 21 deaths, all from eating Ballpark hotdogs and Sara Lee Deli Meats.
Matthew Wise, who leads an Outbreak Response Team for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told attendees of the packed four-and-a-half-hour workshop that hotdogs and deli meats have stayed clear of Listeria in the U.S. for more than a decade.
Ready-to-eat meat products, long named for being at-risk of Listeria, have not been involved in a U.S. outbreak since 2003, and Canada’s last infamous Listeria outbreak, which involved its iconic Maple Leaf Foods, occurred almost a decade ago in 2008.
Wise said an “overwhelming number” of the 1,600 deaths due to Listeria that occur annually in the U.S. are outside of any foodborne outbreak. The pathogen remains a priority for CDC, though, because the fatality rate for such incidents is high — 20 percent or more.
And when it comes to the source of Listeria contamination, the gram-positive, rod-shaped bacteria has found a new ride. Out of 98 multi-state Listeria outbreaks since 2006 in which the CDC determined a source, fresh produce was named in 42 of the investigations, or almost 43 percent of the time.
That’s a reality the fresh produce generals at the workshop were ready to acknowledge, even mentioning how much they’d like to repeat the kind of improvements the hotdog and deli meat industries have shown.
Because the Department of Justice may still be investigating it, Natalie Dyenson, vice president for food safety and quality for Dole Food Company Inc., was not able to talk about the Listeria outbreak involving her company’s bagged salads, which shut down its Springfield, OH, facility for the early months of 2016. Even the slides for her general remarks were marked “cleared by legal.”
Things really began to change for the Listeria prevention and detection forces in 2010, when CDC and the Food and Drug Administration began to employ Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS). Since the application of the high-tech DNA fingerprinting, there have been more Listeria outbreaks identified, but they have been producing fewer illnesses.
The WGS technology is also how CDC is able to identify outbreaks that stretch out over longer periods of time. For example, the nine illnesses attributed to the Listeria outbreak reported last year involving frozen vegetables were actually stretched over three years, according to CDC’s Wise.
“Illnesses always come from someplace,” Wise said. With WGS, he explained, we are just seeing greater accuracy being brought to outbreak investigations.
Gillian Kelleher, vice president for food safety and quality assurance for Wegmans Food Markets, said in the retail setting, defending against Listeria has now moved beyond the deli departments into all areas of stores where fresh food is prepared or stored.
No Listeria workshop would be complete without addressing sanitation practices in some very specific ways. Doug Craven, corporate manager of sanitation for Hormel Foods, and Joe Stout, president of Commercial Food Sanitation, presented the sanitized perspective.
Stout, who worked for Kraft for 30 years before opening his own consulting business eight years ago, said the key is to “know your plant.” Craven explained how the take down of legacy equipment is often one of the greater challenges facing sanitation workers.
“We have to strive for perfection,” said Stout, adding that it’s important not to forget that “food safety happens on the floor.”
Stout said he worries food companies might get distracted with the paperwork required by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), and take their eyes of “the floor.”
“Don’t let the FSMA get in the way of food safety,” he quipped.
Dole’s Dyenson said it’s time for produce to come up with some innovations. With the multiple types of fresh produce, she noted: “It’s not like a can of beans.”
FDA has an updated draft guidance, “Control of Listeria monocytogenes in Ready-To-Eat Foods,” which supports ongoing efforts by industry and government agencies to reduce the risk of Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat (RTE) foods. Listeria monocytogenes a pathogen that can grow even in cold, refrigerated environments, is particularly harmful to the elderly, pregnant women and/or their pregnancies, young children and people who are immunocompromised.
The draft guidance is open for public comment until July 26. FDA claims it is consistent with the FSMA and that all food facilities that manufacture, process, pack or hold RTE foods will benefit from clear guidance on measures to control Listeria monocytogenes in the food processing environment, regardless of whether the facility is subject to CGMPs, preventive controls, or both CGMPs and preventive controls.
Industry best practices and the “seek and destroy” approach used by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture have been incorporated into the FDA’s draft guidance.
Integrating these approaches along with the food safety requirements under FSMA, is suppose to lead to more effective efforts to control Listeria monocytogenes in RTE products.
Facilities that produce RTE foods and are regulated by both USDA/FSIS and FDA will also benefit from a uniform federal approach to reducing the risk of environmental contamination with Listeria monocytogenes. Both FDA and USDA have had a “zero tolerance” for the pathogen since 1986.