WASHINGTON -- Responding to numerous outbreaks of the food-borne pathogen, Listeria monocytogenes, the Food Safety and Inspection Service division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture here has initiated new long- and short-term action plans for preventing future contamination.
The preventative measures come in response to the nationwide outbreak of listeriosis associated with ready-to-eat meat and poultry products that occurred late last year.
"Anytime someone becomes ill, and especially when someone dies, you take that matter very seriously," said Beth Gaston, a spokeswoman for the FSIS. "We are taking measures to prevent future outbreaks and contamination."
Gaston said that after launching a testing program centered on L. monocytogenes in 1987, and later revising it in 1989, the number of related illnesses dropped and then leveled. She said the FSIS hopes for similar results following this most recent initiative. "We'd like to see that number drop again," she said.
Three components comprise FSIS' short-term initiatives. First, the FSIS published in its Federal Register -- published May 26, 1999 -- a notice advising establishments to reassess their Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plans to ensure they are adequately addressing L. monocytogenes.
As a second step, the agency is providing guidance to the industry on practices that have been used successfully by other meat and poultry establishments to prevent the occurrence of the potentially hazardous pathogen in ready-to-eat products.
Finally, the FSIS is carrying out educational efforts targeting individuals who are at an increased risk of developing listeriosis.
Gaston said consumer education is crucial in combating future outbreaks. Pregnant women, newborns, older adults and people with weakened immune systems are considered high risk consumers, she added, but with the proper information, health problems can be avoided.
"We're advising that [consumers] reheat ready-to-eat foods like lunch meats, or avoid them, if [they] feel [they], or someone in [their] family, is at risk," said Catherine Woteki, undersecretary for food safety.
To help reduce the risk of illness, the FSIS recommends that consumers reheat ready-to-eat foods, such as hot dogs, deli meats, cold cuts, and meat and poultry products until they are steaming hot; wash hands, cutting boards, dishes, and utensils with hot, soapy water after handling such foods; avoid soft cheeses and unpasteurized milk; do not consume unpasteurized foods; and be observant of expiration dates on precooked and ready-to-eat perishable items.
"We have better tools available now," explained Gaston. "Detection methods are much more thorough and allow us to pinpoint an outbreak and track it back to one company, as opposed to in the past when cases were handled individually."
The FSIS has also issued a four-part long-term goal initiative, the first component of which is the drafting of certain protocols for studying post-production growth of L. monocytogenes. The FSIS plans to use the results to help it respond to any future outbreaks of listeriosis.
The second long-term initiative is aimed at developing an in-depth verification protocol to evaluate a plant's HACCP program for ready-to-eat products. The protocol will be used by a qualified, multidisciplinary team that will inspect the plants, check the efficiency of their HACCP plans and present its findings to FSIS management.
The third step on the agenda, in conjunction with the Food and Drug Administration, is the creation of a risk-assessment process for L. monocytogenes focusing mainly on refrigerated, ready-to-eat foods.
The final component calls for the development of new food-safety standards, pertaining to ready-to-eat products, that will address all pathogens, including L. monocytogenes. The measures are intended to improve the safety of ready-to-eat products and provide plants with the flexibility of adopting science-based food-safety processing procedures and controls, as well as allowing them to develop objective, measurable standards that can be verified by the FSIS.
In related news, Morningland Dairy Farms, Mountain View, Mo., recalled 135 pounds of its Morningdale Dairy Chives Colby cheese due to a possible listeria contamination.
Customers were urged to return the Colby cheese, which is made from raw milk and packaged in vacuum-packed bags, to the retailers where it had been purchased.
The recalled cheese carries the package code A259 and was sold through the mail and by retailers throughout New York, California, Missouri, Colorado, Utah, Illinois, Arizona, Tennessee, Georgia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.
Operations at Morningland Dairy were temporarily closed when contamination showed up in tests conducted by federal health officials. The family-run dairy plans to reopen when test results are negative.