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USDA recently published a study on the pathogenic risks of ready-to-eat meats, with a particular focus on Salmonella. While the results of the random sampling showed a fairly low percentage of establishments with one or more Salmonella-positive sample (0.46%), there were two statistics cited that I found to be quite interesting and revealing, including: More than half of the positive samples were obtained from establishments using L. monocytogenes control alternative 3 (sanitation only). All but one of the Salmonella-positive samples were obtained from small or very small establishments (based on HACCP sizing criteria). But before I go into these, you should know a little more about the study. USDA-FSIS Researchers collected ready-to-eat (RTE) meat and poultry product samples from 2,784 RTE-producing establishments for random (ALLRTE) and risk-based (RTE001) sampling projects. The samples were evaluated for the percentages of Salmonella -positive samples, product types of positive samples, and Salmonella serotypes. There also were descriptive summaries with respect to establishment hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP) size, production volumes, L. monocytogenes control alternatives, geographic location, and season or month of sample collection. Although Salmonella -positive samples were found in all geographic regions at all times of the year, results showed low occurrences, with 14 positive samples (0.06%) for ALLRTE and 33 (0.05%) for RTE001. Percentages of establishments with at least one Salmonella-positive sample averaged 0.46% for ALLRTE and 1.11% for RTE001. So, back to the statistics. More than half of the positive samples were obtained from establishments using L. monocytogenes control alternative 3 (sanitation only). While it’s not surprising that the Alternative 3 (sanitation-only) facilities would have the highest occurrence of Salmonella, it is revealing – and concerning – that more than half the positive samples were from these facilities. Alternative 3 is one of three methods facilities can use to control Lm contamination of post-lethality exposed RTE products, established by USDA’s Listeria Rule. Alternative 1, an establishment applies a post-lethality treatment (PLT) to reduce or eliminate Lm and an antimicrobial agent or process (AMAP) to suppress or limit growth of Lm. Alternative 2, an establishment applies either a PLT or an AMAP. Alternative 3, the establishment does not apply any PLT, AMAP; it relies on its sanitation program to controlLm. As can be seen, the alternatives increase in the stringency of their control from Alternative 3 to 1. Because of this, FSIS samples establishments in Alternative 3 at a higher rate than those in Alternative 1. Thus, it would make sense that the least stringent method has the least successful outcome, particularly because the controls around Lm and Salmonella are basically the same in principle, but Lm is more often found in cold, wet environments and Salmonella more in dry environments. This result is not totally surprising, but it does clearly emphasize the need for those plants using Alternative 3 to have a solid environmental control program that should go way beyond just cleaning and sanitation.  The move from consumers toward “clean” foods with less preservatives will put more pressure on keeping environmental pathogens out of finished products. As to the second statistic I noted: All but one of the Salmonella-positive samples were obtained from small or very small establishments (based on HACCP sizing criteria). Again, it’s not really surprising that small/very small plants had more positive samples, but it is concerning that all but one of the Salmonella-positive samples were found in these facilities. Most food safety regulations have lower requirements for small and very small plants, based primarily on their resources and capabilities to implement extensive programs. But, while a contaminated food from these facilities will likely affect fewer consumers, is that one or few person(s) who become ill, or even die, really less important than many who do? This also can be an issue because, these days, consumers tend to trust small businesses more than they trust “big business.” But statistics like these seem to show just the opposite when it comes to food safety. Again, this is not a great surprise but in today’s consumer world where large corporations are being shunned, it may be time for larger corporations to point out some of these differences to consumers. This study has shown through sampling what one would suspect – that smaller plants are more risky than big plants and that producing foods without preservatives increases the risk. No surprises there for those in the food safety world. But, this study will likely get no traction with consumers, and I think there is a message here that should be conveyed by the industry to consumers to point out that being a large company and adding preservatives can actually reduce food safety risks. About The Acheson Group (TAG) Led by Dr. David Acheson, TAG is a food safety consulting group that provides guidance and expertise worldwide for companies throughout the food supply chain.  With in-depth industry knowledge combined with real-world experience, TAG’s team of food safety experts help companies more effectively mitigate risk, improve operational efficiencies, and ensure regulatory and standards compliance. Learn more at:  www.AchesonGroup.com

USDA RTE-Meat Sampling Results Interesting and Concerning