Everything you need to know about reducing the risk of a Listeria outbreak

It’s not uncommon to hear on the news at the moment of a ‘Listeria outbreak’. For many people just hearing that sentence causes panic, but how much do you really know about Listeria?

The recent outbreak should act as a reminder to all food businesses, from manufacturers to restaurants, of the importance of regularly reviewing their food safety management systems to make sure they control the current risks effectively.

What is Listeria?

Listeria can cause the food-borne infection Listeriosis. Listeria can affect anyone; it probably happens more often than you think as for healthy people the infection doesn’t pose much of a threat, however the infection can be extremely serious and in some cases life-threatening for those suffering from pre-existing conditions.

Who can Listeria affect?

Those really at risk are adults age 65 or over, pregnant women and their new-borns and people whose immune systems are weakened due to illness or ongoing medical treatment. Although the bacteria might only affect a select group of people, it is estimated that 260 people die of Listeriosis every year.

What causes Listeria to grow?

Listeria is bacteria that is commonly found in water, soil and faeces. People can be infected if they consume foods that carry the bacteria. It is most common for the infection to be picked up from products such as deli meats that aren’t processed properly, or from dairy products made from milk that haven’t been pasteurized properly, meaning the milk hasn’t been heated enough to kill germs. Other common sources to cause outbreaks are cured meats, smoked fish, cooked shellfish, pate and mould-ripened soft cheeses.

How can you reduce the risk?

Despite there being many solutions for fighting harmful bacteria, Listeria is notorious for being more robust than other bacteria, it is able to grow below 0ºC and can even survive deep freezing at -18ºC degrees.

There are many ways to help reduce the risk of listeria contamination when preparing food, but in order to effectively control and monitor the bacteria and prevent an outbreak, a Listeria management plan is essential. It is also crucial to ensure that the handling of food in the production and preparation environment is understood and established across all employees. Ensuring the correct actioning of ‘The Four C’s’:Cleaning – Ensuring that the environment in which the food production/preparation has taken place has been thoroughly and effectively cleaned.

  • Cooking – Certain foods such as meat, poultry and fish must be cooked at a high temperature (65ºC kills Listeria bacteria). It is crucial that a food thermometer is used to measure these temperatures, in order to ensure that all foods are cooked to safe internal temperatures.
  • Chilling – ‘The danger zone’ also known as temperatures between 4.4ºC and 60ºC is the temperature in which bacteria can multiply rapidly, put simply the higher levels of bacteria the higher the risk someone will become ill.
  • Cross-contamination – In order to prevent cross-contamination, it is vital that ready-to-eat foods and raw foods are stored and prepared separately. Ideally, separate cutting boards should be used for different foods.

Although Listeria is particularly difficult to manage, following the four C’s and ensuring you have a management system in place initially will help you to fight against the bacteria.

Making sure food safety management systems are fully implemented and still effective in controlling the risks associated with the operation is vital.  Reviews should always be conducted when a change to the operation occurs but ideally should be reviewed at least once a year.  This together with strong risk based verification procedures should form part of any effective food safety management system.

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