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Deli Deals

Center for the Global Food Value Chain Blog

I recently attended a public town hall meeting hosted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Services (USDA FSIS) on the retail Listeria monocytogenes (Lm) risk assessment. As a microbiologist and a food safety professional, I wanted to know why the retail deli had been singled out for these studies. 

According to the study, deli meats pose the greatest risk for listeriosis. The study revealed that the listeriosis cases attributed to deli meat are resultant of cross-contamination primarily linked to deli meat sliced and packaged on-site. 

As the meeting unfolded, a couple of interesting data points caught my attention: 

  1. Receiving contaminated products from a manufacturer or primary sourcing location could introduce Lm into the retail environment. Once introduced, Lm is extremely hard to eliminate 
  2. The use of growth inhibitors in deli meats could significantly reduce the growth of Lm, thereby reducing the Lm exposure incidences and probability of infection 

Voila! We had our answers to how Lm gets into the retail environment and how we can control their growth in deli meats! Well, if only real life were that simple. Here are three points to consider:

  1. Listeria is ubiquitous. Even if products are manufactured under the best of conditions, there’s still the possibility of contamination as the deli meat is packaged, loaded and transported to the deli. The deli may be free of Lm, but it’s possible for it to be introduced into the environment from a customer, worker, or from a completely unrelated product like cantaloupes or diced onions. In short, controlling Lm in a deli environment was and continues to be a challenge. 
  2. The option of using growth inhibitors may not be acceptable to the ever increasing, health conscious customers who want natural, minimally processed products. For the manufacturer, it’s a tough choice: add inhibitors to increase product safety, or go with the customer’s preference for minimal chemical intervention. Unanimous consensus that addition of growth inhibitors to deli meats eliminates Lm incidents is lacking. 
  3. There are important data gaps in the area of Lm risk assessment, e.g., Lm coefficient of transfer from product surfaces, or how non-product contact surface areas like drains and sinks play a role in Lm transfer. The town hall meeting shed light on how far we have progressed in our understanding and control of Lm in retail delis, but there is still work to be done. 

What did I learn from the town hall meeting? Government agencies and the food industry are making efforts to decrease the risk of Lm in retail environments. Not much effort has been expended on understanding consumer practices and how that might play an important role to the spread of Lm cross-contamination. Consumers are part of the risk equation and included in efforts to prevent contamination. I’m a consumer and this is about my safety. So please, count me in the discussion.

Public meeting on the interagency retail Listeria monocytogenes risk assessment
FSIS comparative risk assessment for Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat meat and poultry deli meats report
Draft interagency risk assessment—Listeria monocytogenes in retail delicatessens: Notice of availability of documents and request for comment
Using the JIFSAN pilot observational study of food safety practices in interagency Listeria monocytogenesat retail deli risk assessment
Assessing the effectiveness of the “Listeria monocytogenes” interim final rule 

Debarati Bhattacharya
Manager, Business Risk, Food Safety
Deloitte & Touche LLP




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