WASHINGTON — In the last 30 years, Listeria monocytogenes has been the catalyst for more changes in the processed-meat industry than any other event — and the establishment of effective and attainable protection plans has been key to the industry’s successful evolution to a high level of control, according to John Butts, vice-president of research at Land O’ Frost.
Mr. Butts recently spoke on behalf of the American Meat Institute Foundation at a Food Safety and Inspection Service public meeting on its Retail Lm Risk Assessment. F.S.I.S. and the Food and Drug Administration have initiated a joint interagency risk assessment that will evaluate the dynamics of Lm contamination in retail facilities. This risk assessment will evaluate how retail practices can affect contamination and the relative effectiveness of various retail interventions. Ready-to-eat foods, including cheeses, deli meats and deli-type salads, will be studied as part of the risk assessment. The purpose of this meeting was to solicit feedback on how F.S.I.S. and F.D.A. may conduct the risk assessment.
Mr. Butts discussed the lessons learned by meat processors during the evolution of the industry’s Listeria control efforts. These efforts can be categorized into four phases that began in the early 1990s with awareness (recognition of the environmental nature of Listeria), followed by enlightenment (recognized existence of growth niches and beginning of redesign phase), preventative (mapping of growth niches, establishment of intervention practices) and predictive (aggressive early warning sampling and intervention practices in place).
He also detailed the impact of the A.M.I. Board vote in 1999 to make food safety a non-competitive issue and encourage collaborative problem-solving among members of the industry.
"Declaring food safety ‘non competitive’ and sharing the process control ‘best practices’ were key in the industry’s successful evolution to a high level of control," Butts told those attending the roundtable discussion.
Since 2000, the prevalence of Lm in ready-to-eat products has been reduced by 74% to less than 0.4%, Mr. Butts said. He added since 2003 there have been no U.S.D.A.-inspected plants linked to a Listeria illness investigation.
As the scope of control evolves, there are some pitfalls to avoid, including punishment—either regulatory or corporate—for finding a problem, he continued. Mr. Butts also expressed his opposition to prescriptive government programs.
"Given room for discovery and continuous improvement, like habit-forming, change will be slow and gradual," Mr. Butts said.
He also warned that there are some missing gaps between data from the meat processors to public health illnesses that should be considered when moving forward.
"A.M.I and the processed meats industry remain committed to solving the food-safety problems associated with our products from the farm to the fork," Mr. Butts concluded.