Everyone in the meat and poultry industry knows the risks of Listeria monocytogenes. It can cause a disease called listeriosis that is particularly dangerous to infants and young children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems. Listeria thrives in cold, moist environments, including food-processing plants.

Ready-to-eat foods (RTE) or precooked meat and poultry products, such as lunch meats, hot dogs, precooked sausages, uncured cooked poultry, jerky, corned and cooked beef, are at high risk of being contaminated with Listeria. While the US Dept. of Agriculture has recommended the re-cooking of RTE products or treatment with antimicrobials to prevent these products from being re-contaminated with Listeria, sometimes neither is a viable option. Instead the best tool is keeping a clean and properly sanitized processing plant.

When sanitation practices are insufficient, Listeria can harbor in processing equipment including slicers, dicers and even floor drains. Also, packaging machinery can harbor pathogens and transfer it to products.

Avoiding contamination

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has developed a guidance document called “Control of Listeria monocytogenes In Refrigerated or Frozen Ready-To-Eat Foods”, which outlines the agency’s current thinking on controlling this foodborne pathogen. FDA advises processors to consider these recommendations as they relate to each individual operation and tailor control strategies to the specific circumstances of each processing operation.

To minimize the potential for contamination of refrigerated or frozen ready-to-eat (RF-RTE) foods and food-contact surfaces with L. monocytogenes, FDA recommends that processors establish and use a sanitation program that includes a written sanitation standard operating procedure (SSOP) and a sanitation maintenance schedule for areas where RF-RTE foods or food-contact surfaces are processed or exposed.

In general, the written SSOP should address:

  1. The condition and cleanliness of food-contact surfaces, including equipment, utensils, gloves, and outer garments; and
  2. The prevention of cross-contamination:

• from unsanitary objects to food;

• from unsanitary objects to food packaging material and other food-contact surfaces (including equipment, utensils, gloves, and outer garments);

• from raw food to cooked food;

• after any listericidal step; and

• because of traffic flow patterns for employees and for equipment.

Any written SSOP should be made readily available to personnel who are responsible for cleaning and the adherence to the SSOP should be closely and regularly monitored. In addition, when changes are made to company SSOPs, all new and existing employees should be re-trained on procedures.

The guidance document makes these additional recommendations:

Processors should provide separate locker areas, break areas and cafeteria areas for employees who handle RF-RTE foods.

Employees who handle trash, offal, floor sweepings, drains, production waste or scrap product should change their smocks or uniforms, wash and sanitize hands, wear clean gloves, and don and sanitize footwear before handling RF-RTE food or touching RF-RTE food-contact surfaces or food packaging material.

All persons who enter an area where RF-RTE foods are processed should thoroughly wash their hands before.

Employees should use suitable utensils (such as spatulas or tongs), or wear gloves, when touching exposed RF-RTE foods, food-contact surfaces, and packaging materials.

Gloves and footwear should be worn by employees who handle RF-RTE foods or who work in areas where RF-RTE are processed.

Employees should not use cleated footwear unless it is necessary for their safety, because cleated footwear can collect large particles of dirt or other waste from the plant.

What to wear

One of the many topics covered in the FDA’s guidance document is the importance of what employees wear while performing their jobs.

Sometimes sanitation practices aren’t all about the specific task at hand, it’s just as important to use the correct equipment and wear the right clothing when it comes to keeping production facilities sanitary.

With respect to clothing, FDA recommends that:

  • Employees should not wear street clothes in areas where RF-RTE foods are processed or exposed unless the street clothes are adequately covered above the knees with a clean smock
  • Smocks for employees in areas where RF-RTE foods are processed or exposed be worn only in the RF-RTE area
  • Smocks be laundered or disposed of daily
  • Employees change into a clean uniform or smock before entering areas where RF-RTE foods are processed or exposed
  • Smocks or uniforms that will be used in areas where RF-RTE foods are processed or exposed be distinguished from smocks or uniforms that will be used in other areas (particularly areas where raw foods are processed or exposed) using a mechanism such as color coding
  • Smocks or uniforms should be distinguished according to the task that the employees perform (production, maintenance, QA). For example, if you restrict the access of maintenance employees to areas of the plant where finished product is exposed, such color coding helps to identify the employees with such restricted access.

This list is to be used only as a guideline. Address specific questions to your supervisor.