The government is tightening scrutiny of companies that process beef, pork and poultry for deli meats and hot dogs but don’t test countertops, equipment and other parts of their plants for listeria.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a directive Monday to its inspectors ordering increased monitoring for companies that don’t have testing programs of their own or who keep the results of such tests to themselves.
Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods Inc. and ConAgra Foods, one of its major competitors, characterized their listeria testing programs as “rigorous” and “aggressive,” and said the directive would have little impact on how they currently do business. “What inspectors will do is this intensified testing environmental testing in those plants that do not do their own environmental testing or that don’t share their data with us,” said Dr. Elsa Murano, USDA undersecretary for food safety.
Until now, the government has required meat processors to test their products for presence of the pathogen but not their plants and equipment. Those plants that did do such environmental testing did not have to share the results with federal inspectors.
The directive was issued in response to an outbreak of listeriosis in the Northeast and in New England states this summer that sickened 52 people, killing seven. The disease can cause flulike symptoms, including nausea and diarrhea. It is especially dangerous for pregnant women, young children, the elderly and people with weak immune systems.
A month ago, investigators found identical strains of the listeria that caused the outbreak in a floor drain at the Wampler Foods plant in Franconia, Pa., and in a sample of deli meat from a J. L. Foods plant in New Jersey.
The investigation prompted Wampler Foods to recall more than 27 million pounds of ready to-eat chicken and turkey meat, and J. L. Foods recalled 200,000 pounds of poultry meat. Both plants reopened last week after the government gave them clean bills of health.
Had the directive been in place before the investigation, the government might have traced the outbreak much sooner than it did, Murano said.
Wampler Foods did not share the results of its environmental tests with inspectors, forcing them to rely on product tests.
Murano said the department will continue to use results from listeria testing of plants and equipment to order recalls if they find contaminated meat.
Consumer groups said the directive is one step toward preventing listeria from sickening people. “It’s good that the plants are testing,” said Caroline Smith-De-Waal, director of food safety for Center for Science and the Public Interest. “But itâ€™s not enough if they don’t share the results and take proper corrective action.”
Tyson Foods Inc., the nationâ€™s largest meat company, has used a “rigorous testing program underway in our poultry operations for a couple of years now,” including environmental testing, spokesman Ed Nicholson said Monday. “We’re ahead of the game with regard to listeria testing in our poultry operations.”
The testing programs have been extended to ready-to-eat beef and pork plants at IBP Inc., which Tyson purchased last year, IBP spokesman Gary Mickelson said Monday. “As a result, the directive will result in very little change in our operational procedures,” he said.
Nebraska-based ConAgra Foods, one of the nation’s largest meat processors, also has an “aggressive listeria program for our processing facilities” that includes equipment and contact surfaces, said spokesman Julie DeYoung on Monday. “We’ll be reviewing [the directive] to see if that would affect our programs, but we have had programs in place for quite some time,” she said.
The National Food Processors Association said the changes will make testing programs more effective but added that the government needs to complete risk assessment analyses for linking listeria found on the floor or wall of a plant to public outbreaks of the disease. “We still think that there is science that needs to be done,” said Timothy Willard, a spokesman for the industry trade group.