Food safety watchdog considers stricter listeria controls

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food safety

The Food Standards Agency is considering tougher thresholds for Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat foods for vulnerable groups – such as the elderly
The Food Standards Agency is considering tougher thresholds for Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat foods for vulnerable groups – such as the elderly
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is considering stricter criteria reducing the levels of Listeria monocytogenes (Lm) in ready-to-eat (RTE) foods intended for vulnerable people in hospitals and other health care settings.

Today [June 27] The Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food (ACMSF), which advises the FSA, will consider various options covering the reduction of levels of Lm in foods supplied to these groups.

The stricter criteria options being considered range from the complete absence of Lm, or a new low numerical value, for example, less than 20 colony forming units per gram (cfu/g) or less than 10cfu/g. The maximum legally permitted level of Lm in RTE food is 100cfu/g.

Cooked sliced meat and sandwiches

Typical RTE foods which are susceptible to Lm growth include soft mould-ripened cheeses, pâtés, smoked fish, cooked sliced meat and sandwiches.

The proposed changes form part of the FSA’s Listeria Risk Management Programme, which aims to reduce the incidence of listeriosis – the foodborne disease associated with Lm bacteria.

The programme has three elements: providing advice to consumers on foods to avoid or reduce the risk of contracting listeriosis; improved compliance of high-risk food industry sectors with existing legal requirements for Lm in foods, while ensuring robust and consistent enforcement in this area; and advice on procurement/provision of foods to hospitals.

“Businesses should not be allowed to supply the healthcare sector if they have not implemented the same manufacturing, shelf-life and chill chain controls as required to supply the major retailers,”​ said Kaarin Goodburn, director and secretary general of the Chilled Food Association. “That's what the matter really comes down to.”

However, Goodburn added: “Even with all the highest standard of manufacturing, etc, controls in place and although professional manufacturers supplying the major retailers aim for absence, it is not technically possible to guarantee consistently achieving​ [complete absence of Lm] without applying a post-pack process.

“The standard Lm methods used by industry have a limit of quantification of 20cfu/g.”

Rise in cases

While the number of laboratory-confirmed cases of (Lm) has declined in recent years – from 176 in 2010 to 163 in 2011 – incidents remain about 41% above those observed in 2000. Public Health England recently reported a rise in cases in England and Wales, from 148 in 2011 to 165 last year.

Pregnant women are the most vulnerable group​ to this disease, due to the risk to unborn children. However, their listeriosis case rate remains stable and the greatest increase has occurred in people over 60 years of age, according to the FSA.

In May the FSA began consulting on the stricter criteria and plans to issue an industry questionnaire shortly so that it can put together an impact assessment. This will be produced in September with a view to finalising the new advice by the end of 2013.

The FSA is also currently developing simple practical guidance for businesses – particularly for smaller businesses and environmental health officers (EHOs) – so that they better understand how to control and manage the risk of Lm in RTE.

It has set up a group of experts to review a first draft of the guidance, which is meant to be completed and industry guidance published by the end of 2013. The guidance will be supplemented with training sessions for EHOs early in 2014.

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