A study evaluating ready-to-eat (RTE) meat and poultry samples from USDA-regulated establishments showed that they pose a low safety risk. For the study, conducted from 2005 to 2012, 24,385 random or all (ALL)RTE samples from 3,023 establishments and 66,653 risk-based or RTE001 samples from 2,784 establishments were collected and tested for Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes. Findings were published in the October issue of Journal of Food Protection.
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According to the journal’s abstract, results showed low occurrences of Salmonella-positive samples from the ALLRTE (random) and RTE001 (risk-based) sampling projects, with 14 positive samples (0.06 percent) for ALLRTE and 33 positive samples (0.05 percent) for RTE001. Percentages of establishments with at least one Salmonella-positive sample averaged 0.46 percent for ALLRTE and 1.11 percent for RTE001.
Stephen W. Mamber, PhD, senior data analyst at USDA/Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), says FSIS tests RTE meat and poultry products for both Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella. Salmonella, like Listeria monocytogenes, is considered to be an adulterant in RTE products and therefore is not allowed in commerce, which is why FSIS tests RTE products for both bacteria. He says data from studies like this one are used as the basis for policy changes.
“It was important to conduct this survey to determine if there are specific issues associated with products or manufacturers,” says Jim Dickson, professor, Department of Animal Science, Iowa State University, Ames. “Since ready-to-eat meat and poultry products won’t be further processed by consumers, these products are required to be free of both Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes. Both of these bacteria are significant human health hazards. From a manufacturer’s point of view, there is both an ethical and regulatory responsibility to assure that these products are safe to consume as intended.”
Manpreet Singh, PhD, professor and extension food safety specialist, University of Georgia, Athens, Ga., didn’t find the low prevalence of Salmonella in RTE products surprising because these products have already gone through a “cook” process. “Most thermal processes are designed to eliminate this pathogen, and if properly implemented the occurrence of Salmonella should be low to none in such products,” he says. “With strict hazard analysis and critical control point plans being a part of an establishment’s overall food safety program, Salmonella risk is significantly minimized.”
Regarding the Listeria monocytogenes results, the study noted that the highest risk was from samples collected from facilities that only used sanitation to prevent contamination. “This can be challenging because basing a pathogen control program only on sanitation without any post process lethality step can result in increased prevalence of Listeria monocytogenes in RTE meat and poultry products,” Dr. Singh says.
Dr. Dickson says it’s important to look at the products which tested positive for Salmonella. Three product categories, sausage products, pork barbecue, and head cheese, collectively account for almost 60 percent of positive samples. “This would suggest that more attention should be paid to the manufacturing of these products,” he says. “I also think that the information on establishment size might suggest where additional outreach activities might focus.” Of the samples tested, most were detected at small or very small establishments.
To avoid food safety risks, Dr. Dickson recommends keeping equipment clean and sanitary; avoiding cross-contamination; employee training; and fundamental process control, beginning with properly calibrated equipment and understanding where cold spots exist in your smokehouse.
“Unfortunately, what I have seen over the years is not a lack of understanding, but complacency,” Dr. Dickson says. “A company may do a very good job, and over time it assumes that it has addressed all safety risks. Their high standards may slip, just once, and then they end up with a positive sample.”