Listeria testing rules don’t go far enough: Food expert

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By Sarah Schmidt, Canwest News Service


OTTAWA — One of the federal government’s expert advisors on food safety says the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s newly released listeria testing rules for ready-to-eat meats likely don’t go far enough for large operations.

The agency on Friday unveiled tougher rules after reviewing testing protocols in the wake of last summer’s deadly listeriosis outbreak traced to ready-to-eat meats produced at a Maple Leaf plant in Toronto.

The company found listeria building up “deep inside” two slicing machines was the most likely source.

As of April 1, operators producing deli meats and hot dogs must begin testing food-contact surfaces up to once a week per line and look for trends in the results to catch potential problems.

This is the first time the agency is spelling out a prescriptive timetable for such testing. And all positive tests must be reported immediately to agency inspectors, who will be required to increase the frequency of their own monitoring tests.

Operators will also be required to test meat products for possible listeria contamination up to 12 times a year.

“This is not about a single point in time doing something and washing our hands and saying, ‘OK, now we’ve done it. It’s about continuous improvement. Wherever we identify that there is a need in terms of system enhancement, we’re going to act on that learning, and this is a good example,” Paul Mayers, the agency’s associate vice-president of programs, said in an interview.

University of Manitoba food microbiologist Rick Holley, a member of the agency’s academic advisory panel on food safety, said the agency is right to require companies to conduct testing on food-contact surfaces such as meat slicers.

Until now, food-contact surface testing was “implied. It was certainly not being enforced,” he said.

“Not only does it give you an indication of a change in the sanitation condition of the equipment that comes into contact with food, but it serves as a trigger for end-product testing, and that’s all built into the guidelines.”

But Holley warned the new testing regime for food-contact surfaces should be the minimum for any big operation.

“From a regulatory perspective, yes, I think that it serves as a clear indication to industry that government is serious about this. I think that’s positive. In a large operation, such as we see in companies the size of Maple Leaf, they would be well advised to increase food-contact surface sampling frequencies beyond the description and the scaffold that has been given by this document,” said Holley.

“The requirement is that the sample be taken three hours after startup and that might not be enough once a week,” he said, adding he believes large operators “will really see this is nothing more than a scaffold upon which they should be building their own programs.”

Mayers said industry can go beyond this new “baseline” of frequency of testing. “What we’re adding is that prescriptivety, so that at a minimum there is a common baseline across the system, he said, adding updated rules for other environmental testing will be in place by the fall.

Holley applauded the agency’s attention to the file to ramp up listeria testing.

“I suspect that since listeria is only infrequently a problem that there were bigger fish to fry, unfortunately. It’s one an issue such as Maple Leaf experienced recently comes to the fore that they then realize that, ‘Hey, we said we were going to have everybody do this, we better do what we said we would do, and get things in order. In this case, so far it’s positive.”

Bob Kingston, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada’s agriculture union, which represents meat inspectors at federally registered plants, said the changes announced Friday are all “good,” but said the agency needs to devote more resources to get the job done.

“Good on CFIA for trying to do something. The problem is they’re going to be asking their staff to do more than they were already doing. On top of having to monitor more rigorously what the plants are doing, they’re also going to be stepping up their own testing. All those are good things. Everything they’ve put on paper is good, but there are no additional resources.”



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