EFSA collected samples from 3,530 pre-heated meat products on sale in supermarkets and shops across 26 EU member states and Norway, and listeria monocytogenes was found in just 2.1% of meat samples. Only 0.4% of samples were found to exceed the EU food safety limit of 100 bacteria per gram.
In contrast, the bacteria was found in 10.3% of fish products, with 1.7% of samples found to exceed the food safety limit.
However, the report said that even low levels of contamination gave “cause for concern” because of the popularity of cooked meat products in Europe and the severity of listeriosis, which has high hospitalisation and mortality rates.
It said it was therefore vital for the food chain to abide by the specific rules set down by EU legislation, including the need to follow “good manufacturing practices, appropriate cleaning, sanitation and hygiene programs and effective temperature control”.
The report also pointed out that consumers should be educated about the importance of keeping refrigeration temperatures low, with the World Health Organisation recommending temperatures of between 0°C and 5°C.
“It would be beneficial to remind consumers about the importance of following the manufacturers’ storage instructions respecting use-by dates, and of following the guidelines given by the national authorities on consumption of the foodstuffs in question,” it added.
The survey was the first part of an EFSA analysis of the EU-wide risk of listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat foods. The second part of the study, which is expected to be finalised next year, will look at the risk factors for the presence of listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat meat, fish and soft cheese products.