News | May 28, 1999

USDA Issues New Listeria Contamination Guidelines for Ready-to-Eat Meat/Poultry Manufacturers

On Tuesday, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) informed manufacturers of ready-to-eat livestock and poultry products of its views about the application of the hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP) system regulations to contamination with Listeria monocytogenes.

The document is available on USDA's web page at:

FSIS believes that the findings from testing a range of ready-to-eat products and information from investigations of outbreaks of listeriosis constitute changes that could affect an establishment's hazard analysis or alter the HACCP plan for affected products. Therefore, establishments must reassess their HACCP plans for ready-to-eat livestock and poultry products.

If reassessment results in a determination that Listeria monocytogenes contamination is a food safety hazard reasonably likely to occur in the establishment's production process, then it is a type of microbiological contamination that must be addressed in a HACCP plan.

The scientific-based HACCP system requires that a company identify vulnerable points in the production system, such as fecal contamination, and establishes constant checks to monitor those points.

Plants are expected to submit plans to comply within 30 days. Facilities that fail to implement the proper HACCP programs under the new policy will face enforcement action that could mean withdrawal of USDA's inspectors. Without inspectors present, plants must shut down. FSIS is also making guidance material available that establishments may find helpful.

In addition, the revised guidelines include a public education campaign about listeria. A new booklet, to be distributed to physicians, nursing homes, public health officials, will warn pregnant women, the elderly and others with weak immune systems that they should thoroughly reheat hot dogs, cold cuts, sausage and other deli-style meat and poultry products to kill the bacteria.

The booklet, which is also available on the USDA's web page, urges at-risk consumers to stop eating soft cheeses such as feta, brie, Camembert or Mexican-style cheese. Pregnant or ill consumers should also steer clear of unpasteurized dairy products and unwashed fresh vegetables, the USDA said.

Consumer Groups Wanted Warning Labels
While the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and other groups had sought warning labels on packages of ready-to-eat meat products, the USDA said it was not ready to go that far. "We are very open to the possibility of taking additional steps," said Tom Billy, head of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, adding that the USDA would gather data to decide if warning labels on packages might be necessary.

Consumer groups have also expressed concern about how some packages of ready-to-eat foods linger in storage and on grocery store shelves for months, urging USDA to establish limits for the shelf life of ready-to-eat products. They also recommend that federal meat inspectors conduct regular tests for listeria to compare against plant tests.

NFPA Recommends In-Package Pasteurization
In response to the new guidelines, The National Food Processors Association's (NFPA) senior director of food safety programs, Jenny Scott, commented:

"In February of this year, at a public meeting on L. monocytogenes, NFPA provided USDA with suggestions for a multi-faceted risk management strategy for addressing this issue. NFPA's recommendations covered a number of strategies outlined in these USDA guidance materials. In addition to the USDA recommendations, NFPA believes that the agency should target resources on those products with the greatest risk for contamination with high levels of L. monocytogenes at the time of consumption and encourage adoption of in-package pasteurization technologies such as irradiation to inactivate pathogens."

"NFPA looks forward to studying USDA's policy notice and guidance materials, and to working with the Food Safety and Inspection Service to ensure that any food safety activities undertaken by government and industry to address L. monocytogenes are both workable and effective."

FSIS invites comments on the factors addressed in this document and on its guidance material. Comments may be submitted by July 26, 1999.

Submit one original and two copies of written comments to FSIS Docket Clerk, Docket No. 99-025N, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service, Room 102, Cotton Annex, 300 12th Street, SW, Washington, DC 20250-3700. All comments submitted in response to this document will be available for public inspection in the Docket Clerk's office between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

For further information contact: Daniel L. Engeljohn, PhD, director, Regulations Development and Analysis Division, Food Safety and Inspection Service, Washington, DC 20250-3700; (202) 720-5627.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is a nonprofit health-advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

NFPA is the voice of the $430 billion food processing industry on scientific and public policy issues involving food safety, nutrition, technical and regulatory matters and consumer affairs.