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Seafood FAQ: Proper handling prevents Listeria contamination

A good HACCP plan is the best way to protect your products and consumers

Many companies guard against pathogens through voluntary product testing by the Commerce Department's Seafood Inspection Program. - USDC
James Wright
December 01, 2005

Seafood processors pay a steep price for a food-product recall, especially one due to bacterial contamination. On top of the cost of goods and labor involved in a recall, the ensuing public-relations fallout can weaken consumer confidence and deal a damaging blow to future business. Thus, it is imperative to eliminate any potential risks regarding food safety and quality.

One of the most common causes for a seafood-related recall is Listeria monocytogenes, a microorganism found worldwide, predominantly in ready-to-eat items like smoked fish and seafood salad. Listeria can cause serious health problems, even death. It is important for seafood processors and distributors to know the facts about Listeria to keep consumers safe.

Q. What is Listeria?

Listeria monocytogenes (pronounced: mono-syto-jenees) is a bacterium found in soil, vegetation, marine sediments, water, in the intestinal tracks of certain species of mammals and birds and possibly in some species of fish and shellfish. Even when refrigerated at a low temperature of 32 degrees F, it is capable of multiplying and growing to an infectious dose.

Q. What are the potential health risks from Listeria?

The illness Listeria causes in humans, listeriosis, can lead to serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, elderly people and individuals with weakened immune systems due to factors like AIDS, cancer, diabetes and kidney disease. Manifestations of listeriosis include more serious conditions, such as meningitis and encephalitis. While healthy people may suffer only short-term symptoms — fever, headaches, stiffness, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea — or none at all, Listeria infection can cause miscarriages and stillbirths among pregnant women.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 2,500 cases of listeriosis are reported in the United States annually, resulting in 500 deaths. Pregnant women are 20 times more likely to get listeriosis than other healthy adults.

Q. What is the chief cause of Listeria?
Listeria proliferates in unsanitary conditions. For example, cross-contamination can occur when employees handle both raw and cooked product without washing their hands or their cutting equipment. Mary Losikoff, senior regulatory microbiologist for the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Seafood, says Listeria poses a unique yet ultimately preventable challenge for food processors.

“Listeria is a different health risk entirely, in that it is caused primarily by [poor] sanitation practices,” says Losikoff, who notes that strict adherence to a detailed HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) plan is a must for all seafood processors.”

Q. What products are most susceptible to Listeria contamination?
Because of Listeria’s ability to grow in cold temperatures as low as 32 degrees F, the greatest threat of listeriosis is from ready-to-eat products, such as seafood salad and smoked fish. Other seafood items that have tested positive for Listeria include raw fish, cooked crabs, raw and cooked shrimp and raw lobster. It has also been found in dairy products, vegetables, beef and poultry.

Because ready-to-eat products are often handled at several stages of processing within a single facility, the chances of cross-contamination and recontamination are heightened.

Q. What is the testing procedure for Listeria?
The U.S. Dept. of Commerce’s Seafood Inspection Program, based in Silver Spring, Md., tests products on a voluntary basis. More than 250 seafood-processing companies pay the USDC inspection program to conduct tests on an almost daily basis, says Steve Wilson, the chief quality officer.

Test results for Listeria normally take at least seven days, Wilson says, adding that Listeria is “very rare,” but testers like the Seafood Inspection Program are indeed “looking harder for it.

“Methods [for testing] are far more sophisticated, more precise,” Wilson says. “Safety awareness and programs like HACCP are [lowering] occurrences of all [food-borne] pathogens.”

The FDA’s Office of Seafood also conducts random annual inspections of most seafood processing plants.

Q. When a product is found to have Listeria, what steps are taken to ensure consumer safety?
Product recall. According to the FDA Web site, recalls have “proven over the years to be the quickest and most reliable method to remove potentially dangerous products from the market.”

A common misperception of a recall, however, is that the FDA “orders” food product recalls. Recalls are generally carried out voluntarily, whether the company discovers the problem or if the FDA informs the company of its findings. If the firm does not recall the product following such a recommendation, the FDA can seek legal action under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. These actions include seizure of available product, and/or injunction of the firm, including a court request for recall of the product.

Q. How can processors eliminate Listeria in food products?
Follow good food-safety practices when handling raw and cooked seafood. All employees who come into contact with food products should follow a detailed HACCP plan.

HACCP has been extremely effective in that it has forced processors to “use the kinds of sanitation practices they should have been using all along,” says Losikoff, who adds that processing plants should have a good handle on their product lots, the lot sizes and distribution to retail outlets and foodservice, so that customers can be notified of a food-safety problem as soon as possible.

Losikoff recommends that all processors develop plans that can be put into effect if a recall emergency arises. Guidelines on FDA recall procedures and industry responsibilities are detailed in the Code of Federal Regulations (21 CFR 7), which can be found online at www.cfsan.fda. gov/~lrd/cfr740.html. For consumers, thoroughly cooking and/or freezing seafood kills Listeria.

For more information on Listeria monocytogenes, visit www.foodsafety. gov/~dms/lmr2plan.html.

 December 2005 - SeaFood Business 

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