While everyone agrees preventing food-borne illness is a worthwhile goal, food industry insiders tell SN the government's proposed listeria regulations leave plenty of room for improvement -- and could drive up prices of ready-to-eat meats.
Aimed at food processors, the regulations proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service are two-pronged.
First, the government has proposed food safety performance standards for ready-to-eat and partially heat-treated meat and poultry products. They would cover not only luncheon meats and hot dogs but a wide spectrum of products, from salt-cured meats such as country ham to canned products such as spaghetti and corned beef hash. The standards would establish levels of pathogen reduction and limits on pathogen growth that meat processors would be required to meet.
FSIS also is calling for processors to test food contact surfaces for listeria -- a requirement that could be problematic for products with short shelf lives, industry sources told SN.
"If manufacturers produce products that are fresh [with little or no preservatives] and are required to 'test and hold' to avoid a recall, the product will be near to the end of its shelf life when test results are completed," said Ed Meyer, director of deli/seafood/carryout for Schnuck Markets, the privately held St. Louis, Mo.-based chain of more than 90 stores.
Supermarket retailers face store-level rules under the proposal, and may have to pass along processing-related price increases.
"The proposed new regulations will have a direct economic effect on meat manufacturing of ready-to-eat products, thus increasing the cost of the products to the deli department," Meyer said.
The rules "will cause increased cost to the production of RTE products if the manufacturers pass the increase to retailers," he said. "Only time will tell if the retailer or customer will be willing to pay more for the RTE products."
The FSIS routinely tests some RTE products for evidence of contamination. But processors do not have to meet specific regulatory pathogen reduction requirements, as set by the government. The proposed performance standards set measurable standards that could be verified by the FSIS.
Satisfying the government's validation requirements could drive up costs for processors, according to an official from the National Food Processors Association, the Washington-based trade group for the food processing industry.
"Exactly what level of validation, and what information would have to be developed and made available to FSIS inspectors...that's a big issue," said Lloyd Hontz, senior director of food inspection issues for the NFPA, who could not estimate the cost of the regulation to the industry.
"I think a lot of the cost components of this exercise will be involved in the level of detail...the validation," he said.
According to the FSIS, the rules encourage establishments to adopt innovative, science-based food safety processing procedures and controls. But processors could not make upgrades without incurring new costs, Hontz said.
"If a lot of developmental work is required to develop processes, it could be quite expensive," he said.
Hontz questioned the potential effectiveness of the regulations to achieve their goal of reducing cases of listeriosis. Whether the rules would cut down on the number of product recalls remains to be seen, he said.
Processors already follow stringent practices to ensure product safety, he added.
"By and large, the processes that people are utilizing today are indeed safe," Hontz said. "If they have to prove that they're safe under very conservative assumptions proposed by [FSIS], it could be a very expensive proposition to do that at very little gain because they're already producing a safe product."
The regulations apply only to ready-to-eat meats regulated by the Department of Agriculture. Other foods, like some soft cheeses, are exempt. That loophole has angered the American Meat Institute, the Arlington, Va.-based industry group representing meat packers and processors.
"It is inappropriate to sample some foods known to support the growth of Listeria monocytogenes but not others," the AMI said in a statement.
Without government regulation, the meat and poultry industries have taken a number of steps to reduce the incidence of listeria in RTE meats, the AMI said. According to the group, the industries have reduced the incidence of listeria in hot dogs and luncheon meats; developed various technologies, ingredients and practices to prevent listeria contamination; educated employees in the latest listeria prevention measures; and stepped up voluntary environmental testing in manufacturing plants.
Listeriosis is a rare yet potentially fatal disease. An estimated 2,500 people become seriously ill with listeriosis each year and, of those, 500 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta. Healthy adults and children rarely become seriously ill, but the disease presents the greatest risk to pregnant women, newborns, people with weakened immune systems, people with AIDS, those with cancer, diabetes or kidney disease and the elderly.
The general public -- and the food industry -- became familiar with listeria in late 1998 and early 1999. That's when a nationwide contamination of hot dogs and deli meats was linked to 21 deaths and 100 illnesses. Products were removed from supermarket shelves in a series of recalls.
The outbreak had economic consequences for the Sara Lee Corp. One of its subsidiaries manufactured hot dogs that were linked to the outbreak. Sara Lee suspended manufacturing operations at the Zeeland, Mich. plant for several weeks.
The food company's recall of hot dogs and packaged deli meats cost Sara Lee $76 million, not including the impact of lost sales and profits [see "Sara Lee Reports a Rebound in Deli Sales," SN, Nov. 15, 1999].
Sara Lee had no comment on the regulations, a spokeswoman for the Chicago-based food company told SN.
In the final months of his administration, President Clinton ordered the USDA to draft an action plan for controlling Listeria monocytogenes in food plants. Earlier this year, the proposed rule was held up temporarily by the new Bush administration, but then upheld. The Consumer Federation of America, Washington, hailed the regulation as "an important and long overdue public health measure."
Based on the number of comments the government has received to date, the regulations have not provoked a storm of reaction. Eight comments have been received so far, a spokeswoman for FSIS said. The agency was preparing to extend by 30 days the May 29 deadline for receiving comments on the regulations.
A coalition of food processing industry groups wants even more time. The organizations have requested a 120-day extension, the NFPA said.
"Most likely, it will be extended, and extended again," said Timothy Willard, a spokesman for the trade group. "This is not something that'll move like greased lightning."
For now, processors don't have to worry about upheaval at their plants. The government has not set a date for putting the rules into practice.
All comments will be taken into consideration before the government irons out a final version of the regulations, the FSIS spokeswoman said.