The Agriculture Department warned meat companies Monday that it will increase testing of plants for listeria unless they do it themselves and share the results with the government.
The department told its food safety inspectors to start conducting the tests Dec. 9 at plants that have not done such inspections.
Inspectors will target plants that process meats considered at high or medium risk of becoming poisoned with listeria, such as deli meat and hot dogs, said Elsa Murano, the department’s undersecretary for food safety.
Processors are required to test their products for the bacterium, but not their plants and equipment. Some plants do their own environmental tests, but they haven’t had to show the results to the government.
“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,” Murano said.
The directive was issued in response to an outbreak of listeriosis in the Northeast that sickened 52 people, killing seven. The disease can cause flu-like 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.
“One can never be sure, but it certainly would have helped us have that information and be able to perhaps ascertain that maybe there’s a potential problem there,” Murano said.
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 DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “But it’s not enough if they don’t share the results and take proper corrective action.”
Although the directive is meant to encourage processors to start environmental testing programs, some companies may not find it worthwhile because the department already conducts such tests, said Jenny Scott, senior director of food safety for the National Food Processors Association.
“Some will say, ‘I’ll take my chances with the agency’s testing,'” Scott said.
Smith DeWaal said the Agriculture Department could require processors to test plant environments for listeria by finalizing a rule drafted during the Clinton administration.
She said the agency has delayed the rule for too long.
“I think consumers have paid a horrible price for the delay,” Smith DeWaal said.
Murano said the department must finish studying ways that listeria can taint meat in plants before approving the regulation. The study will be finished by December 2003, she said.
It is taking so long to finish because the department wants a listeria testing rule that will be effective, not one that amounts to window-dressing,” Murano said.