Listeria, one of the most dangerous food-borne pathogens, rarely infects U.S. consumers, according to the experts. That’s because food processors are particularly careful to control the bacteria.
“Listeria is a major problem. It can kill people. It’s very dangerous,” said LSU AgCenter food microbiologist Marlene Janes.
Listeria contamination is most common in ready-to-eat meat products, and contamination generally occurs in the processing plant between cooking and packaging, said food microbiologist Beilei Ge.
“Listeria can grow under refrigerator temperatures,” Ge said. “If you don’t reheat contaminated foods to steamy hot, it will be there.”
The population segment most vulnerable to Listeria is pregnant women, Janes said. Many people develop immunities, so if they become infected, they only experience flu-like symptoms. But Listeria can cause major problems with fetuses.
“I tell pregnant women to avoid ready-to-eat meats unless they’re thoroughly cooked,” Janes said. “With any food, you can have problems, but you can’t let it scare you.”
Listeria bacteria are found in the environment – in soil and in the air. It can be carried on people’s shoes, Janes said. “The primary control for Listeria is in-plant sanitation.”
“The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has set zero tolerance for Listeria in ready-to-eat foods,” Ge said. “That’s a stringent requirement for processors to maintain their food safety programs.”
Because food is processed by large companies, recalls often cover large areas – nationwide or multi-state, Janes and Ge said. But when safety systems are working, a problem can be caught and contained before a product gets to consumers.
Once something happens, it’s bad for a company’s reputation and sometimes for the industry as a whole, Ge said. Companies should work together to implement an industry-wide food safety system. The safety systems in place assure consumers of a safe food supply.
The LSU AgCenter helps Louisiana companies identify potential problems and create control measures to prevent contamination from occurring. Because of the potential severity of food-borne illnesses, processors must demonstrate control of their products after cooking, Janes said.
“We have helped companies put in a lot of containment measures,” Janes said. “We’re proactive. We’re catching things.”