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Is Your Plant Protected Against a Listeria Outbreak? 4 Facts to Consider



Listeriosis is a potentially fatal infection usually caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria. Nearly everyone infected with listeriosis is hospitalized, and one in five people or 20 percent of those affected will die from the disease. Those with weakened immune systems, pregnant women and their newborns, and adults aged 65 or older are most commonly affected.

Outbreaks of Listeria have been traced to deli meats and hotdogs, with the most recent outbreaks linked to soft cheeses, fresh produce, and ice cream.

The presence of Listeria in a food processing facility can cost a lot of money, lead to illness (even death), and negatively impact your plant’s reputation. In fact, the FDA estimates the total annual cost of Listeria outbreaks is around $2.6 billion, making it the third most costly foodborne illness. Although total remediation costs per plant can vary greatly depending on the situation, one of the worst Listeria outbreaks ever recorded cost the company over $67.5 million dollars.

One of the best ways a plant can protect itself and ensure the safety of others is to take a proactive approach to plant sanitation. When factoring in materials, labor, and maintenance, the USDA estimates that the daily application of a floor foamer would annually cost anywhere between $6,937 and $89,200 depending on the size of the plant—a mere fraction of the cost plants would face if a Listeria outbreak were to occur.

To prevent the spread of infection, plant managers must understand how Listeria contaminates food and pass this information along to their entire staff. The more educated managers and plant staff are, the easier it will be to identify Listeria problem areas, decrease the risk of Listeria outbreaks with proper sanitizers and cleaning practices, and keep their work environment protected against future outbreaks.

Listeria Outbreaks: A Dangerous Trend

Listeriosis outbreaks associated with soft cheeses have been increasing in the United States since 2006, where a majority of people impacted were pregnant women and those of Hispanic origin.

The outbreaks linked to soft cheese from 1998-2014 resulted in 180 confirmed illnesses, 17 deaths, and 14 fetal losses. 88 percent of these cases required hospitalization, according to a report published at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An Expensive Pathogenic Liability

According to a 2014 estimate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the direct and indirect costs associated with illnesses caused by major foodborne pathogens are around $15.6 billion per year. A more recent study from Ohio State University estimates the total costs from the major foodborne pathogens is at least $55.5 billion.

This is a devastating problem, and not just for the individuals that become ill. Depending on the size of the food processing plant linked to the outbreak, the plant could be forced to dispose of all of their inventory. Additionally, the processor may be required to issue a recall of contaminated or potentially contaminated food. Add in the extra steps necessary to eliminate the pathogen, and a food processing plant could be shut down for hours, days, or even weeks.

In 2012, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute estimated that the average cost of a food recall in the United States was $10 million. And that is just the direct costs, such as the removal and disposal of the recalled product. Indirect costs to plants are huge—lawsuits, damage to the plant’s reputation, and loss of sales, just to name a few.

Steps to Take When an Outbreak Occurs

Plants that have already identified a Listeria outbreak have very little time to act in order to completely eliminate the bacteria as quickly as possible.

Time is of the essence, and complete sanitation—regardless of the environment and equipment present—must occur quickly and thoroughly the first time in order to avoid a complete shutdown and harm to consumers.

Regardless of the size of the plant or the potential or actual outbreak, the team at Decon7 has seen it all. Once a potential or actual outbreak is identified, the Decon7 field technicians will visit the plant site and assess the individual needs of the plant. D7, a patented, EPA-registered foam sanitizer for processing, would then be applied to all contaminated surfaces in order to penetrate and eliminate Listeria.

After the successful elimination of Listeria, the Decon7 team focuses on preventative measures moving forward in an effort to avoid another outbreak.

Prevention Is Best

Prevention of a Listeria outbreak is the ultimate goal. Plants must put in place methods to identify, eliminate, and control Listeria so the bacterium does not cause a listeriosis outbreak.

  • Identify—Depending on what the plant manufactures, the USDA requires the plant to sample for Listeria at varying frequencies. Even if the plant does not fall under these USDA regulations, the processor may want to consider performing environmental testing to determine if the plant has Listeria in their facility.

  • Eliminate—Processing plants must have a good cleaning and sanitation program in place in order to eliminate Listeria. This two-step process includes the removal of physical food particles (cleaning) and complete elimination of pathogens (sanitation). Because drains are so frequently contaminated with Listeria, special attention to correct cleaning and sanitation of drains should also be in place.

  • Control—Food and non-food contact surfaces need to be cleaned and sanitized daily, and possibly even more frequently. Plant managers should train staff on these policies and provide reminders throughout the day to help staff understand cleaning and hygiene practices.

To stay proactive, read The Busy FSQA Manager’s Guide to Proactive Plant Sanitation to learn more about how to cost-effectively and efficiently prevent bacterial contamination in your facility.

Not only are Listeria outbreaks devastating and potentially life-threatening to consumers, the cost and impact to food processing plants can be catastrophic. Food processing plant managers and staff need to arm themselves with knowledge on how Listeria grows and spreads, how it can be eliminated, and what measures can be taken to prevent the pathogenic spread to begin with. When a plant arms itself with protection against this harmful bacteria, consumer safety productivity will increase, and product loss will decrease.

The Busy FSQA Manager's Guide to Proactive Plant Sanitation