Current testing for listeria is not stringent enough to fully protect the nation’s food supply, and new prevention methods need to be created, a top U.S. Department of Agriculture official said yesterday.
An outbreak of listeria in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and six other states is blamed for killing seven people and sickening at least 50. And it has led to the closing of two meat processing plants one in Franconia Township, Montgomery County and one in Camden and the nation’s largest recall of meat products.
“Testing failed to prevent the outbreak of listeriosis in the Northeastern United States, and it failed to catch the contaminated product linked to the outbreak until after an exhaustive investigation,” Elsa Murano, undersecretary for food safety, said in a Washington speech to the National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection.
“My view is that we cannot test our way out of this problem,” she said. “In fact, we cannot test enough product or plant environments to find all the Listeria monocytogenes that is out there threatening food safety.”
“We must focus on prevention by addressing the critical entry points in processing systems for Listeria monocytogenes and then use testing to ensure that our interventions are working as designed,” Murano said.
She said the department was studying plant production and packaging systems through which the bacteria could enter.
The Agriculture Department is considering a regulation to require companies to do their own testing for listeria, to supplement testing by federal inspectors.
Consumer groups contend the outbreak and recalls could have been prevented if the government had already approved the regulation, which was drafted by the Clinton administration but never implemented.
Murano’s call for tougher measures was supported by the American Meat Institute.
“You cannot rely on testing alone” for food safety, said Janet Riley, its vice president of public affairs. “You need preventive strategy. Preventing listeria is good for our businesses.”
Last month, the Wampler Foods Inc. plant in Montgomery County was shut down, and the company recalled 27.4 million pounds of turkey and chicken products made there. It was the largest meat recall in U.S. history, triggered by the finding of listeria bacteria at the plant.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention subsequently said the strain of listeria found in the plant’s floor drains matched the deadly “outbreak” strain of listeria that has sickened at least 50 and killed seven, including two people in Philadelphia, in the Northeast since July.
And on Saturday, J.L. Foods Inc. of Camden shut its plant and recalled 200,000 pounds of poultry products after food inspectors found a strain of listeria indistinguishable from the “outbreak” strain in a sample of turkey breast. The USDA is still waiting for results of environmental tests done at the plant, while authorities are investigating if a “common-source product” such as the same batch of raw turkey meat was used at both Wampler Foods and the J.L. Foods plants, a CDC spokesman said.
Neither plant has reopened.
Also yesterday, Philadelphia health officials said listeria bacteria were found in a local woman who died Saturday. But the cause of death was stomach cancer, said Jeff Moran, spokesman for the city’s Department of Public Health. The unidentified woman, who was 41, was in a local hospital for an unspecified time before she was discharged Saturday, Moran said. She later died at her home, he said.
Further testing will be done to see whether the woman had the “outbreak” strain of listeria.
In recent months, various strains of listeria have been blamed for 27 deaths and 130 illnesses in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and six other states.
There are six bacterial species of listeria. One, L. monocytogenes, causes human illness.
There are at least 13 strains of L. monocytogenes. Seven of the deaths and at least 50 of the illnesses have been linked to the “outbreak” strain.