WASHINGTON -- A study gauging the presence of Listeria monocytogenes in retail stores indicates the pathogen exists at levels below those currently estimated by food-safety regulators.
The preliminary findings, part of a larger, ongoing survey, will be discussed during the 2001 Supermarket Food Safety Conference, sponsored by the Food Marketing Institute, in New Orleans, Nov. 7 to 9. The National Food Processors Association is conducting the research, with additional funding coming from the Food and Drug Administration.
"Although [Listeria monocytogenes] is present in ready-to-eat foods, as we knew it would be, the numbers are not as high as the government thought they might be," said Dr. Jill Hollingsworth, FMI's vice president, food-safety programs. "It gives us a very good roadmap for future action and where we need to go with that issue."
The proprietary research pulled a wide variety of RTE food products from various retail formats in the Baltimore, Md., area and northern California. They include prepackaged and store-handled luncheon meats, deli salads, cheese and hot dogs, among others. In all, up to 25,000 samples will be tested, according to officials.
Listeria monocytogenes is just one of the issues of particular concern to the supermarket industry that's scheduled to be addressed at the conference, last held under this format in 1999. The program acknowledges the primary dilemma facing retail food safety today: Operators do not enjoy total control over foodborne illness at store level. For example, Listeria monocytogenes affects foods packaged prior to store delivery, and bovine spongiform encephalopathy starts at the farm level.
"There are steps retailers can take in their approach to these types of issues," said Hollingsworth. "The list includes working with suppliers, putting in in-store programs, employee training and consumer education."
So, even though numerous food-safety matters are outside the retailer's sphere of influence, taking steps to protect themselves and their customers reflects a commitment not found in other industries, she added.
Faced with these types of challenges, retailers are increasingly taking steps to develop new styles of management over the food items moving through their stores. One session is devoted to the traceback technology currently being used at Dorothy Lane Market, Dayton, Ohio, which has been testing a comprehensive system in cooperation with the Uniform Code Council.
"Our hope is that the people who leave this conference have the hands-on information about what they might to think about doing down the road," said Hollingsworth.
Other agenda topics tying food safety to the store environment include irradiation, online shopping, packaging and organics. Also, time has been set aside for three interactive discussion groups, where retailers will be able to share ideas and solutions pertaining to specific food-safety challenges.
Attendees will also gain a preview of the updated Food Code, the FDA-created blueprint of regulations for the food industry.
And, a panel of retailers will analyze the food-safety implications that global sourcing brings to the supermarket industry.
Indeed, retailers take a prominent role in this year's conference, with speakers ranging from Michael Hillyer, director of quality assurance for Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark.; to Cas Tryba, food safety manager for Springfield, Mass.-based Big Y Foods, and chairman of the conference planning committee.
Similarly, there is significant representation from state and federal regulators and their agencies, including the FDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"The old adversarial relationships that existed in the past seems to have given way to working as partners, because we've realized we have a common goal," said Hollingsworth. "It's better to work together than to have a one-way, regulator/regulated relationship.