You might not think of delis as dangerous places but they can be a source of food-borne diseases. Listeria contamination is one of the trickiest problems to manage and two federal agencies have teamed up to study the problem.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a 179-page document last week that outlines steps to reduce the risk of Listeria monocytogenes in deli products reaching consumers’ plates.
Listeriosis, the disease caused by Listeria, is rare but has a high fatality rate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 1,500 people fall ill with listeriosis each year and about 260 of them -- or 16% -- die.
Salmonellosis is far more common but far less serious, with a fatality rate of about half of one percent.
The study released last week, formally known as a risk assessment, links certain deli practices to potential public health risks. It's intended to apply to all kinds of retail delis, from the mom-and-pop deli on the corner to large deli departments in supermarkets.
“The risk assessment will be a tremendous asset in our efforts to reduce the 1,600 illnesses and 260 deaths attributed to this pathogen annually,” said USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen. “Essential information has been gained from these findings, including the fact that once Listeria monocytogenes enters a retail environment, it has the potential to spread due to cross contamination."
The study found that a combination of several best practices can significantly reduce the risk of contamination:
- Storage temperature. If all refrigerated, ready-to-eat foods are stored at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or below at least 9 of every 100 cases of listeriosis caused by contaminated deli products could be prevented.
- Growth inhibitors. If all deli products that support Listeria growth were reformulated to include growth inhibitor, 96 of every 100 cases of listeriosis caused by contaminated deli products could be prevented.
- Cross contamination. Slicers and other machines play a big role in cross contamination. Proper cleaning and personal hygiene can make a difference.
- Contamination of incoming product. If current levels of Listeria in ready-to-eat foods received by the retail deli from processing establishments were reduced by half, 22 of every 100 cases of listeriosis caused by contaminated deli products could be prevented.
FDA offers a number of food safety resources for retail delis online.