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Most cases of Listeria occur at the deli counter rather than at the manufacturer, yet most of the federal government’s sanitary guidelines are geared toward plants. At this year’s Institute of Food Technologists Annual Conference and Food Expo, experts from the U.S. government, academia and food industry discussed how to minimize Listeria in facilities that process consumer protein products. Some 80 percent of Listeria-related deaths occurred in people who bought sliced meat at a deli counter rather than packaged meat. But the primary regulators for retail establishments, such as delis and restaurants, are state-level inspectors. Much to the frustration of some retailers, the federal government has provided little guidance as to how to combat the dangerous pathogen.
“I can’t design a cleaning procedure until someone tells me what the rules are,” said O. Peter Snyder Jr., president of Hospitality Institute of Technology and Management. “If you think these things need to be washed, I’ll wash it, but tell me how to wash it.”
Snyder said the government has failed to provide retailers with specific standards they must achieve. So it is left to state inspectors, who conduct periodic inspections and either pass or fail the establishment based on their individual interpretations of cleanliness.
Most establishments have at least some presence of Listeria, whether it’s in a floor drain or on a meat slicer. Snyder said that it’s almost impossible to eradicate the facility entirely. Manufacturing plants are specifically designed to eliminate pathogens, but retail establishments are not, he said. Indeed, a 2006 study by New York’s Department of Agriculture found Listeria in 58 percent of the retail establishments they tested.
“I don’t know if it’s politics, but no one will come up with specific procedures,” Snyder said.
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials say they are working to develop better data for the industry, but until then, retailers should decide for themselves how often and what methods to use to sanitize their facilities.
“Based on the data, they have found that about 80 percent of deaths related to deli meats are those packaged at the retail level,” said Janell Kause, director of the Office of Public Health Science, Food Safety and Inspection Service at the USDA. “If the problem is unsanitary conditions at processors, we need to figure out how we’re going to address that.”
One area of concern should be the deli’s drainage system. Most retailers don’t clean their drains properly, and part of the problem is that workers either don’t know better or simply won’t do better. Larry Kohl, a senior director of food safety programs at the Food Marketing Institute, said he once asked a chemical supplier to create a product that would essentially clean the drain itself. He asked for an Alka-Seltzer-type formula that would run down the drain, scrubbing along the way, using a tough ingredient that could break through the bacteria-laden biofilms and grease.
“Cleaning the drain is a nasty thing, that no one wants to do,” Kohl said.
Source: Institute of Food Technologists (IFT)