Listeria monocytogenes contamination of ready-to-eat foods and the risk for human health in the EU
Food safety criteria for Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat (RTE) foods have been applied from 2006 onwards (Commission Regulation (EC) 2073/2005). Still, human invasive listeriosis was reported to increase over the period 2009–2013 in the European Union and European Economic Area (EU/EEA). Time series analysis for the 2008–2015 period in the EU/EEA indicated an increasing trend of the monthly notified incidence rate of confirmed human invasive listeriosis of the over 75 age groups and female age group between 25 and 44 years old (probably related to pregnancies). A conceptual model was used to identify factors in the food chain as potential drivers for L. monocytogenes contamination of RTE foods and listeriosis. Factors were related to the host (i. population size of the elderly and/or susceptible people; ii. underlying condition rate), the food (iii. L. monocytogenes prevalence in RTE food at retail; iv. L. monocytogenes concentration in RTE food at retail; v. storage conditions after retail; vi. consumption), the national surveillance systems (vii. improved surveillance), and/or the bacterium (viii. virulence). Factors considered likely to be responsible for the increasing trend in cases are the increased population size of the elderly and susceptible population except for the 25–44 female age group. For the increased incidence rates and cases, the likely factor is the increased proportion of susceptible persons in the age groups over 45 years old for both genders. Quantitative modelling suggests that more than 90% of invasive listeriosis is caused by ingestion of RTE food containing > 2,000 colony forming units (CFU)/g, and that one-third of cases are due to growth in the consumer phase. Awareness should be increased among stakeholders, especially in relation to susceptible risk groups. Innovative methodologies including whole genome sequencing (WGS) for strain identification and monitoring of trends are recommended.