However, the study also highlighted that a small proportion of the meats contained dangerous levels of listeria monocytogenes and salmonella. The research said contamination was likely to have occurred during processing as a result of incomplete elimination or cross contamination before the point of sale.
The 12-month survey carried out the UK’s HPA and local health authorities examined nearly 2,500 RTE specialty meat samples that included continental sausages, as well as meats that had been cured, fermented and dried. These had been collected from markets and specialist food shops throughout the UK. The meats were tested for Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, other Listeria, Staphylococcus aureus and E. coli.
Some 25 samples were deemed unsatisfactory due to the presence of one of the above, while dried meats had the lowest bacterial contamination where all samples were found to be of satisfactory or acceptable quality, said the report.
Dr Jim McLauchlin, director of the HPA’s Food, Water & Environmental Microbiology Services, said: "Our study shows that the vast majority of ready-to-eat speciality meats tested were safe to eat, but a very small number were found to be contaminated with Salmonella or high levels of L. monocytogenes. These are unacceptable in ready to eat foods and, if consumed, can make people ill.
"The results highlight the generally good control in the manufacture and retail of these meats. However the presence of pathogens in pre-packed ready-to-eat meats suggests that for some meats contamination occurred either during processing or as a result of cross-contamination after processing."
Correct processing and storage vital
But the HPA chief said the long shelf life of some specialty meats combined with inappropriate storage was responsible for allowing listeria bacteria to reach unacceptable levels in some cases. He warned of the need for processors to guard against meat becoming tainted prior to final packaging and for retailers to store products correctly.
The study concluded that the “majority” of RTE meats sold in the UK were of satisfactory/acceptable microbiological quality. This suggests, continued the report that “there is good control in the manufacture and retail of speciality meats”.
The “low-level” of contaminated meats however, “demonstrates the importance of ensuring products do not become contaminated before final packaging, that storage conditions are controlled, and that durability dates are an accurate indication of the shelf life of the product so as to minimise the potential for listeria to be present at levels hazardous to health at the point of sale”, said the report authors.