California Takes Lead on Listeria

Listeria doesn’t just make consumers ill—it can bring an industry to its knees. California cantaloupe growers, whose products were not in any way linked to the massive and deadly multistate Listeria outbreak traced to Colorado’s Jensen Farms in the fall of 2011, saw their sales plunge as much as 80% due to consumer fears of the pathogen.

“We are asking for and anticipate participation from other Western cantaloupe-producing regions, and we hope that other cantaloupe producers around the world will follow our lead.”

Steven Patricio, chairman, California Cantaloupe Advisory Board

The California Cantaloupe Advisory Board sent letters to consumers assuring them that the products were safe, “California grown” labels were slapped on cantaloupes, and supermarkets put up signs assuring shoppers of their melons’ provenance. But demand still dropped.

Now, the industry is trying to recover. Following a two-day meeting attended by growers, scientists, and federal regulators and organized by the Center for Produce Safety at the University of California-Davis, plans to implement new mandatory safety standards for California cantaloupe production have been announced—and the industry is urging other states to do the same.

“In keeping with the leadership position we have always taken with respect to food safety, the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board is pledging today to move forward to establish a mandatory state marketing order with government oversight to focus on food safety in the production of California cantaloupe,” said board chair Steven Patricio in a statement. “We are asking for and anticipate participation from other Western cantaloupe-producing regions, and we hope that other cantaloupe producers around the world will follow our lead.”

With such a heavy footprint , it may not be surprising that the FSIS has had to warn food producers not to alter their regular safety and hygiene practices in anticipation of routine agency inspections, carried out about once every four years.

Apparently in an effort to avoid getting dinged with the “L” word, the FSIS warning says that plants may be selectively amping up their use of sanitizers, avoiding the use of equipment that had previously been associated with Listeria, and shifting higher-risk foods, like processed meats, off the schedule until after the inspection.

“Such practices can interfere with FSIS’s assessment of routine conditions or corrective actions at the establishment and may limit FSIS’s ability to determine whether post-lethality exposed RTE meat and poultry products are not adulterated as required by the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) and Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA),” said Daniel Englejohn, assistant administrator in the FSIS Office of Policy and Program Development.

Listeria hasn’t just been making headlines in the U.S.—it’s on the increase in many European countries, particularly in meat and seafood products. Danish scientists are exploring the use of cold atmospheric pressure plasma treatment as an option for reducing Listeria contamination.

In research that appeared in the Dec. 26 online edition of Food Microbiology, scientists indirectly applied CAPP to packaged ready-to-eat foods at several different concentrations, yielding reductions in Listeria ranging from 0.8±0.4 to 1.6±0.5 log; the only drawback appeared to be oxidation in some products.

CAPP has previously shown promise in combating Listeria and other pathogens: Another study in Food Microbiology, this one in October 2011, found greater than 3 log reductions in Listeria in various chicken components after CAPP treatments of differing durations (Food Microbiol. 2011 Oct;28(7):1293-300).

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