Processors and academics are committed to keeping Listeria at bay

KANSAS CITY — The meat and poultry industry has had greater success in fighting the Listeria pathogen in its products than other sectors of the food industry. But that doesn’t mean poultry and meat processors are resting on their laurels when it comes to controlling Listeria. If anything, they’re taking even more steps to stop the pathogen from contaminating plants, equipment and products.

Listeria monocytogenes can be underestimated. Symptoms can include diarrhea, nausea or other gastrointestinal problems. But if the pathogen gets into people’s blood and they contract Listeriosis, 20% of people will die, compared to a much more common pathogen, Salmonella, which kills less than 1% of people who get sick. Listeria causes the highest mortality rate of the major foodborne pathogens.

The other threat from Listeria is that people who are most susceptible are least able to fight it off: people aged 65 or older, pregnant women and newborn children, or individuals who suffer from weakened immune systems.

Six years ago, 147 people suffered Listeria infections from cantaloupes and 33 people died. Last year, there was a multi-state outbreak of Listeriosis tied to frozen vegetables. The people who got sick ranged in age from 56 to 91.

Meat and poultry don’t get off the hook. Deli meats and poultry are most susceptible to Listeria contamination. Other products vulnerable to Listeria are foods that consumers don’t cook, such as produce, spouts and soft cheeses.

“But thanks to the steps we’ve taken in the meat and poultry industry, we seem to have had more success in preventing Listeria,” said Michael Doyle, Ph.D., director of the Univ. of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety, and Regents Professor of Food Microbiology at UGA.

But that’s not to say industry is letting down its guard – it can’t. The Global Food Safety Initiative held its food safety conference at the end of February and beginning of March. Listeria was a major topic of discussion. And in April, the North American Meat Institute held one of its semi-annual Advanced Listeria monocytogenes Intervention and Control Workshops in Kansas City.

John Butts Ph.D., vice-president of research at Land O’Frost Inc. and president of Food Safety by Design LLC, a consulting firm, who spoke at the GFSI meeting, voiced his concerns about the increasing presence of Listeria in food products. An important thrust of the conference was how to deal with the pathogen, and how to detect and prevent it in meat and poultry.

Butts says Listeria monocytogenes (Lm) control is an increasing global-wide challenge.