Listeria (L. monocytogenes) poses a serious threat to the global food industry. Most notably, recent Listeria foodborne disease outbreaks have resulted in nine deaths across Europe and 208 deaths in South Africa.
In light of the threat posed by Listeria associated with ready-to-eat (RTE) foods,
that include a risk-based approach to identifying and controlling the presence of harmful bacteria such as L.monocytogenes.
Risks of Listeria
Listeria is widespread in the environment. If infected by this type of bacteria, individuals often develop a disease known as listeriosis. Healthy individuals who develop listeriosis may remain symptom-free or, in some cases, may develop mild flu-like or gastroenteritis-like symptoms. Of greater concern are vulnerable individuals with a weakened immune system. Hospitalization is common, and with pregnant women, there is a danger that the fetus will also become infected.
2018 European Listeria Recall
In July 2018, several major supermarket chains in Europe stopped supplying ready-to-eat produce in response to allegations that it was contaminated with Listeria. The source of the outbreak is thought to be a food producer that supplied frozen vegetables from a facility in Hungary. Upon further investigation, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control identified five EU member states (the UK, Austria, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden) that were affected by Listeria-contaminated food products. It was further estimated that nine individuals died due to listeriosis between June 2015 and July 2018, and approximately 50 cases were confirmed.
The outbreak is a good reminder of the importance of consumer safety, and that leadership plays a critical role in developing and supporting a food safety culture. It’s essential for food facilities to have an effective crisis management plan in place, including an action plan for the surveillance, monitoring, and control of Listeria within the facility.
Food industry companies dealing with ready-to-eat foods (RTE), such as salads, cooked meats, smoked fish, desserts, sandwiches, cheese, and food that is cooked in advance to serve cold, must adopt a risk type approach when ensuring that food supplied to consumers is fit to eat.
How to Address Listeria Risk in Business Operations
On an ongoing basis, food companies that deal with RTE foods should consider the following aspects of their business operations:
- Incoming Materials
Ensure that all incoming materials are free from contamination and have been purchased from a reputable supplier.
- Facility Location, Design, and Structure
Consider the design and flow of the processing operation to ensure that it is conducive to delivering food products free from contamination.
- Equipment Design
Understand the type and location of pieces of equipment throughout the production process as the equipment itself can contribute to issues controlling Listeria within the food facility.
- Cleaning and Sanitation
Employ a well-established cleaning program to combat the potential threat of Listeria. Factors which require consideration include: staff training, SOPs, chemical agents, and documentation of cleaning in accordance with pre-established cleaning schedules.
- Equipment Maintenance
Schedule and record the cleaning (including wet and dry techniques), maintenance, and repair of all equipment.
- Staff Hygiene
Train all staff, including non-food handlers, to follow good personal hygiene practices. Awareness of food handler activities which may give rise to the presence of Listeria must be highlighted as part of the staff training program. This is particularly important for workers employed in high-risk food areas.
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