The Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food (ACMSF) has drawn up a report on the increased incident of listeriosis in the UK for the Food Standards Agency (FSA), in which it stresses that preservative factors are important in restricting the growth of the bacterium when present in foods.
Listeria is found naturally in the environment and can be present in a wide range of foods, from pâtés and soft cheeses to cooked sliced meats and smoked fish.
The FSA claims the reported number of illnesses from listeria in the UK has doubled since 2000, particularly in people over 60 years of age. In 2005, there were an estimated 400 cases, of which 380 people were hospitalised and 130 people died, making listeria the biggest cause of death from food poisoning.
The ACMSF argues that trends to reduce factors such as salt may lead to increased growth of the bacterium, L. monocytogenes, if present on foods.
According to the report, many foods that allow the growth of Listeria spp. are included in the FSA targets for salt reduction and include ready meals, cooked meats and sausages, cheeses and sandwiches.
The Committee has called on the FSA to work with industry to ensure that factors such as salt levels of specific products are not changed without considering the impact on L. monocytogenes contamination of the product.
The FSA told FoodProductionDaily.com that it will be considering all the report's recommendations following the outcome of the 12 week public consultation, when it will also evaluate whether additional advice for industry is required.
The agency said that during the drafting of the report, and in consultation with the ACMSF, it published a factsheet detailing key control measures that can be taken to minimise the risk of listeriosis: "The guidance was targeted at those preparing and supplying chilled ready-to-eat foods for vulnerable groups."
The UK food safety regulator added that it has commissioned research on the microbial risks associated with salt reduction in certain foods and alternative options for preservation, which is available on its website; it added that it has continuously reiterated to manufacturers, through stakeholder meetings and guidelines, the importance of assessing the potential impact that reformulation might have on microbiological safety.
“In 2007 the Agency, in collaboration with the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), published a guidance document for small and medium sized businesses on salt reduction.
"This publication provides information and practical tips for businesses on how to reduce salt in meat products, while considering factors such as food safety, labelling and additives,” stated FSA.
Good safety record
The draft report from the ACMSF does stress, however, that the food industry has implemented many controls to prevent the contamination of foods with L. monocytogenes in the last two decades: “Evidence suggests that the incidence and levels of the bacterium at the point of production and the point of sale are not higher than was detected in the late 1980s.”
But the Committee did find that the provision of durability instructions such as ‘Use By’ dates on perishable foods sold loose such as cooked sliced meats was found to be variable and they thus urge the FSA to review the need for consistent advice on such products.
The report also recommends that any future information devised by the agency and targeted at the food manufacturing industry should reiterate the particular importance of temperature and shelf life control as well as hygiene and cleaning, especially of equipment susceptible to contamination such as slicing machines.
The ACMSF said that it is seeking views on its draft report, which is available to download here.