Listeriosis in elderly linked to lifestyle

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Over 65s are more susceptible to listeriosis because of their dietary choices
Over 65s are more susceptible to listeriosis because of their dietary choices

Related tags Refrigerator Listeria monocytogenes Food

Concern about rising levels of listeriosis food poisoning across Europe caused by contamination with Listeria monocytogenes (Lm), despite relatively low levels of the bacterium being picked up in retail surveys of products, has led the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to launch an open consultation on its draft scientific opinion on Lm contamination of ready-to-eat (RTE) foods and the risk for human health in the EU.

Vulnerable groups of people, such the young, elderly, pregnant women, or those who are immunosuppressed (including diabetics and alcoholics), on immunosuppressant drugs, or taking proton pump inhibitors, are particularly susceptible to listeriosis, experts have reported.

As far back as 2009, the UK’s Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food, while finding no single reason for the rising levels of listeriosis, reported a tendency among people over 65 to eat more homemade, chilled and fresh (not frozen) foods and to consume more food cold than hot.

This suggested a possible link to the higher levels of listeriosis risk among this increasing age group.

Higher levels of listeriosis risk

Kaarin Goodburn, secretary general of the UK Chilled Food Association (CFA), said that the UK market covered by its members had grown by more than 20x over the past 30 years.

Despite this, they had demonstrated a good record of controlling Lm, with lower levels detected in surveys than elsewhere in Europe, claimed Goodburn.

However, CFA members do not produce RTE foods in the groups covered by the last Lm EFSA survey, notably heat-treated meat, smoked and gravad fish, and soft and semi-soft cheese, Goodburn pointed out,

“I would suspect that [the UK’s good record] is due to the dominance of the UK retailers in our particular market – primarily own-label – which is not seen in quite the same way in other countries,”​ said Goodburn.

“The product categories considered in this EFSA draft opinion are high risk as they can commonly be contaminated if not produced under appropriate controls; they will support the growth of Lm and they are consumed without any further risk-reduction step.”

Commonly be contaminated

The CFA required compliance by members with its various guidance documents. This included a general focus on Lm management in premises, raw materials, final product, shelf-life establishment and staff training, said Goodburn.

She added that the UK industry had an extensive and well-established monitoring programme, not mirrored in other countries.

“My personal view is that if you are in a vulnerable group, which includes a large proportion of the population and you buy a product in which Lm is present, if you temperature abuse it on the way home, and your fridge is not performing properly in terms of temperature control, and potentially consume beyond the ‘use-by-date’, then those individual increased risks could add up to causing illness,”​ said Goodburn.

She also suggested that more work should be done to improve domestic refrigerator performance, focusing on basic temperature control.

“In most fridges a lot of the cool air falls out as soon as the door is opened,”​ she claimed. “Standards Committees are focused instead on improving energy efficiency and reducing noise, not temperature performance.”

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