EFSA updates EU scientific advice on listeria risk in ready-to-eat foods

Scientists at Europe’s food safety watchdog have updated advice on the risks in foods from listeria, a bacteria causing a food-borne disease which is on the increase. In an opinion published today, the Scientific Panel on Biological Hazards (BIOHAZ) of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recommends that efforts to reduce risks to human health should focus on risk reduction practices both during the production process of ready-to-eat foods (RTE) and at home by consumers.

The Panel recommended that to better assess the risk of the foods responsible for listeriosis it was necessary to investigate listeriosis cases more thoroughly and generate and analyse data on the consumption in the EU of ready-to-eat foods in which Listeria can be found.

Different approaches are taken by public authorities across the world in monitoring the levels of Listeria. In the European Union, there are maximum safety tolerance levels for Listeria[1] in food products.

The Panel concluded that keeping to these limits leads to very low numbers of listeriosis cases in humans as most listeriosis cases are due to the consumption of ready-to-eat foods which support growth of Listeria and develop a high concentration of Listeria along the food chain.

In its advice to industry, the Panel identified the following as key areas for attention: food packaging and preparation practices in the food chain (such as the slicing of RTE meat products), storage temperatures, general industrial good hygiene practices and the education and training of food handlers.

The Panel also advised that consumers should continue to observe recommended storage temperatures and keep food appropriately chilled at all times, and take note of the shelf-life of food in their refrigerators. Good food hygiene and preparation principles also play an important role in the prevention of Listeria and other food-borne infections.

Listeriosis is a rare but potentially lethal food-borne infection caused by Listeria monocytogenes[2] which has a high mortality rate. Elderly people and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to listeriosis as are people suffering from immuno-compromising diseases such as cancer or HIV. An increase in the number of listeriosis cases in humans has been observed in several EU countries since 2000, notably in persons over 60 years old.[3]

The work by the BIOHAZ panel follows a request by the European Commission to EFSA to update the scientific review of literature on listeriosis related to ready-to-eat foods and provide scientific advice on different levels of Listeria in RTE foods and the related risk to human health.

[1] For example, absence in 25 g or ≤ 100 cfu/g at the point of consumption depending on the categories of ready-to-eat foods (e.g. foods intended for sensitive consumers, foods supporting or not supporting growth of L. monocytogenes). Cfy/g – A method for counting living organisms and estimating the number of viable microorganisms in food expressed in cfu/g (colony forming unit – CFU) in plate counts.
[2] Listeria monocytogenes is the bacterium which causes the disease listeriosis
[3] According to the EFSA-ECDC annual report on animal infections transmissible to humans, the number of human listeriosis cases was up by 8.6 % in the EU from 1,427 cases in 2005 to 1,583 in 2006. Nonetheless, the number of large listeriosis outbreaks (i.e. more than 50 cases) have declined since the late 1990s and now the large majority of cases are sporadic.

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