Lm: The Next Frontier in Retail Regulation?
Updated: Nov 22, 2018
I often get asked whether retail and food service is the next big area for federal food safety regulations to change. My answer is that in the short term – no. However, I do think we will continue to see more focus on food safety risks at the retail and food service levels as FSMA regulations take effect. But I see this on 5-10 year time scale and not as an immediate focus.
However, one has to wonder if Listeria monocytogenes is the next frontier in regulation at retail? The Lm pilot project announced last week by USDA, focused on the retail delicatessen implementation of the Lm guidance document published in the Federal Register in June 2015, seems to indicate that the Agency may be heading in that direction—particularly if the voluntary guidance is not being implemented.
The FSIS notice of its new Pilot Project: Control of Listeria monocytogenes (LM) in Retail Delicatessens was accompanied by a Letter to Establishments on the project. The year-long pilot project, launched Monday, January 25, is intended to assess whether retailers are using the recommendations of the FSIS Best Practices Guidance for Controlling Listeria monocytogenes(Lm) in Retail Delicatessens. (FSIS published a user-friendly version of the guidance here.)
For the pilot project, FSIS compliance investigators are completing a questionnaire during their regular surveillance activities to determine whether retailers are following specific recommendations from the guidance. The responses will be used to compare the actual practices of retail delis with the guidance, focused primarily on product handling, cleaning and sanitizing, facility and equipment controls, and employee practices. FSIS will then analyze the responses on a monthly basis to determine if retailer adoption is increasing over time. Quarterly results will be posted online as an FSIS Constituent Update.
Although the notice does not include the actual questions to be addressed, retailers can prepare and check themselves by using the self-assessment tool in the guidance to determine which of their practices are in compliance with GMPs—and which are not, as that tool mirrors the questionnaire. Additionally, FSIS inspectors are to give a brochure on the guidance to deli operators. The brochure, also available online, provides bullet points on ways to prevent or limit the growth of Lm in deli products, with specific recommendations for the key areas noted in the previous paragraph.
The pilot does not include sampling at retail, rather the questionnaire will be in addition to standard FSIS inspection and enforcement procedures. After the questionnaire is completed, the FSIS investigator will use the responses to make recommendations to the deli operator on better ways of controlling Lm in their deli.
Best Practices Guidance
In brief, the Best Practices Guidance document provides specific recommendations for actions that retailers can take in the deli area to control Listeria monocytogenes contamination of ready-to-eat (RTE) meat and poultry products. The voluntary guidance highlights recommendations based on an evaluation of retail conditions and practices of the Interagency Retail Lm Risk Assessment, and includes information from the FDA Food Code, scientific literature, other guidance documents, and FSIS lessons learned.
As discussed above, the guidance also includes a self-assessment tool that retailers can use to determine whether they have adopted the appropriate procedures to control Lm, or whether they should adopt new procedures. A few examples of the questions in the tool include:
Is any visibly adulterated product present in the area (e.g., filthy, putrid, decomposed, slimy, rancid, off-condition)?
Are the deli cases and other refrigerated units maintained at or below 41°F (5°C)?
Are RTE product contact surfaces cleaned and sanitized prior to using the surface for another product to avoid cross-contamination of products?
Are there facility conditions (e.g., condensation dripping on exposed product, construction dust on product, or broken equipment) that could cause the product to become adulterated?
Do employees work without washing hands prior to handling exposed RTE product?
What it all means
FSIS seems to be putting a great deal of focus on the control of Listeria in retail delis over the last year – with the 2015 issuance of guidance, including a self-assessment tool; the publication of a user-friendly version of the guidance along with a bullet-point brochure; and now, the 2016 launch of the retail deli Lm pilot to be conducted at plants across the nation. With such Agency attention, it could be just a matter of time until the recommended practices evolve from voluntary guidance to mandated regulation. And if you work to integrate these “best practices” now, you could save yourself a lot of time and effort later if or when they do become rules.
Regulations aside, there is more focus on Listeria today than ever before and that creates risks for all those handling food where Listeria is a risk. The greater use of tools like whole genome sequencing will certainly help regulators link illness with specific foods and establishments. So FSIS is, essentially, providing you with a step-by-step guide by which to better protect your customers, your retail brand, and that of your supplier.
Lm: The Next Frontier in Retail Regulation? by David Acheson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
About The Acheson Group (TAG)
Led by Former FDA Associate Commissioner for Foods 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. www.AchesonGroup.com