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U.S. report quantifies risk of listeria in deli foods

By Toni Clarke

(Reuters) - Some simple safety techniques for food handling and preparation could help delicatessens and other food stores cut the risk of customers developing the potentially deadly foodborne illness of listeriosis, according to a U.S. government report released on Friday.

The report by the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, recommended strict control of temperature during refrigeration, better cleaning and sanitizing of food contact surfaces and wearing gloves while serving customers.

The report analyzed the risk of illness associated with listeria monocytogenes, or L. monocytogenes pathogen, from food prepared and sold in delicatessens and other retail food stores.

L. monocytogenes is a pathogen that has long been of concern to public health officials. The CDC estimates that it causes about 1,600 illnesses, 1,500 hospitalizations, and 260 deaths a year. Though relatively rare compared with other major foodborne illnesses, it has a fatality rate of about 16 percent, compared with just 0.5 percent for Salmonella or Escherichia coli.

Investigators simulated the retail deli environment and evaluated how certain sanitary and food handling practices could influence the risk of developing listeriosis from ready-to-eat foods that are sliced, prepared or packaged in retail grocery delis.

They found that employing basic practices that prevent growth of the bacteria dramatically reduced the predicted risk of listeriosis.

Some of the main sources of L. monocytogenes are the slicer for deli meats and cheeses and salad utensils for the deli salads. These can lead to cross-contamination of other foods. Controlling cross-contamination at these points reduced the predicted risk of listeriosis, according to the report.

The study "improves our understanding of L. monocytogenes in the retail deli and should encourage improvements to retail food safety practices and mitigation strategies," the report notes, adding that additional data would be useful to further explore how more specific retail practices and conditions such as equipment design, impact the risk of listeriosis.

(Reporting By Toni Clarke in Washington; Editing by David Gregorio)

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