Questions and Answers on Changes to Health Canada's policy on Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat foods

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General

Q - What is this policy about?

A - The Government of Canada's policy on Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat foods is an important tool to be used by the food processing industry and food safety regulators to identify steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of Listeria monocytogenes contamination in these foods.

Q - As a consumer, how can I use this document?

A - The intent of the policy is to provide technical guidance to industry and government on best practices to minimize the chances of contamination before the product reaches the hands of consumers. As a result, the policy itself is not aimed at the average consumer.

However, there are steps that you, as a consumer, can take to protect yourself and your family. For more information on food safety for consumers, go to the  Government of Canada's food safety portal.

Q - How will this policy protect me from foodborne illness?

A - The goal of the policy is to help industry produce safer products. By following this policy, industry will be able to produce ready-to-eat foods that are less likely to become contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, and when there is a contamination situation, it is more likely to be discovered before products hit store shelves.

Q - Would all the recommendations be applicable to all sectors of the food industry?

A - This policy relates specifically to ready-to-eat foods. Ready-to-eat foods are generally considered to be higher risk because the consumer does not cook them before eating, meaning there is more of an opportunity for the consumer to be exposed to bacteria, if the food is contaminated.

Within the ready-to-eat food sector, the policy identifies which types of products fall under the policy and categorizes them based on levels of risk.

Q - In this policy, you emphasize environmental sampling--testing equipment and other material in the processing plant--however, it is the food that makes us sick. So why are you not focusing on testing the finished product?

A - Testing the finished product remains an important part of any food safety regime. However, the analysis of environmental testing results can help to identify potential issues long before the finished product is tested.

By testing the factory environment for Listeria spp. it is possible to identify breakdowns in good manufacturing processes and avoid the bacteria contaminating the food.

Q - What is considered a high-risk food?

A - A high-risk food is a product that has a long refrigerated shelf-life, can support the growth of Listeria monocytogenes and where there is no kill-step (cooking for example) following processing to kill off any bacteria present in the food.

For example, non-dried deli meats are considered to be a high-risk food because they are processed (in this case sliced) after having been cooked. This can re-introduce bacteria to the product, which could then multiply during storage. Since these products are not traditionally cooked by the consumer, this represents a higher risk product.

Q - Why is Category 2A different from Category 1 if both support the growth of Listeria monocytogenes?

A - Category 2A represents ready-to-eat foods where the growth of L. monocytogenes could occur, but where scientific data has demonstrated that the growth would not reach levels that could represent a risk by the end of their stated shelf-lives. In these products, growth could be limited by various factors such as short refrigerated shelf-lives, presence of anti-Listeria compounds, etc.

A threshold of 100 CFU/g (colony forming units per gram, or how many living bacteria are found in a one gram sample) has been set, which is a level of bacteria in food considered by the international food safety community to pose very little health risk. Generally, foods in this category could include ready-to-eat refrigerated foods with a shelf-life of 5 days or less as well as foods that may have persistent low levels of Listeria monocytogenes and do not have a kill-step (e.g., cold-smoked salmon, fresh-cut produce).

For this reason, Category 2A foods should receive a medium-low priority with regards to the level of inspection and compliance activity compared to Category 1 food for which a more rapid growth of L. monocytogenes can occur, (e.g., deli meats, hot dogs, soft cheeses) and which therefore should receive the highest priority for industry control, as well as regulatory inspection and compliance activities.

Q - Is it possible to get rid of Listeria monocytogenes in food establishments?

A - It will never be possible to completely eliminate Listeria monocytogenes from our food processing facilities. Listeria is a naturally occurring bacteria that is in the soil and in the environment around us.

What we can do is put in place processes that will help minimize its presence in our food and allow us to identify contaminated products as early as possible. That is the goal of the new policy.

Q - Will this policy be accompanied by an education campaign?

A - The revised policy recognizes the importance of making sure that Canadians at greater risk, and those who care for them, are aware of steps they can take to reduce the risk.

Health Canada is working with the Public Health Agency of Canada and provincial/territorial partners to provide guidance to long-term care facilities around food safety practices.

As well, in response to the recommendations in the Report of the Independent Investigator into the 2008 Listeriosis Outbreak, also known as the Weatherill Report, Health Canada is in the process of developing an awareness campaign targeting those at greater risk for complications from foodborne illness.

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