A report outlining the impact of the interim final rule designed to further reduce the incidence of Listeria monocytogenes (LM) in ready-to-eat (RTE) meat and poultry products and making recommendations for possible future actions was released for public comment by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
The report shows that the overall safety of these products has improved in response to the Listeria interim final rule because establishments have strengthened their control procedures, increased testing and taken additional steps to eliminate the pathogen.
"Under the Listeria rule, ready-to-eat meat and poultry products are safer and public health is being better protected," Agriculture Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elsa Murano said. "If progress continues at the current rate, we should achieve the Healthy People 2010 goal of lowering the incidence of listeriosis to 0.25 cases per 100,000 people."
The report was prepared by a 28-member FSIS assessment team, which evaluated and measured the effectiveness of all aspects of the interim final rule, as well as the rule's effect on public health, consumer education and its economic impact. Implementation of the rule in small and very small plants and retail establishments was also assessed by the team. The team made recommendations in such areas as inspector training, product sampling, retail food handling and communicating to small businesses.
FSIS has significantly enhanced its oversight of establishments producing RTE products through the interim final rule, while providing incentives for industry to implement new preventive measures. The report found that many plants have made significant improvements to address LM, such as adding antimicrobial ingredients to their product formulations to inhibit the growth of LM and installing a post-processing treatment step to eliminate the pathogen. In addition, the report found that plants have either initiated or greatly increased their testing for Listeria or Listeria-like organisms on plant surfaces that come in contact with products after cooking. These testing data are available to FSIS inspection personnel as a result of the interim final rule and are used to determine the effectiveness of sanitation and other control measures.
The interim final rule on controlling LM was based upon a risk assessment for LM in ready-to-eat meat and poultry products. It requires all establishments producing RTE products that are exposed to the environment after cooking to consider LM a hazard likely to occur, develop written programs to control it and to verify the effectiveness of those programs through testing. Establishments must share testing data and plant generated information relevant to their controls with FSIS. Plants that rely on sanitation measures alone to control LM receive the greatest level of scrutiny from the agency.
In November 2002, FSIS issued a directive placing plants producing high and medium risk ready-to-eat products that did not have a validated testing regime for LM under an intensified testing program. Plants that did have a validated testing program but chose not to share its testing data with FSIS on an ongoing basis were also subject to the intensified testing program. These provisions were also made part of the interim final rule. Consequently, the number of recalls due to LM decreased from 40 to 14 between 2002 and 2003, and the volume of product recalled decreased from approximately 32 million to 55,000 pounds. Additionally, between 2002 and 2003, the percentage of positive LM regulatory samples fell by 25 percent.
The complete team report, entitled "Assessing the Effectiveness of the Listeria monocytogenes Interim Final Rule" is available on the FSIS website at http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Oppde/rdad/frpubs/97-013F/LM_Assessment_Report_2004.pdf.