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Food Pathogen Testing: What’s on the FDA’s Menu?

At a recent Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) event, a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) representative spoke about the agency’s push for pathogen testing in food products. A combination of more sophisticated testing and more aggressive regulatory enforcement has helped drive up contamination recall activity in the food sector in recent quarters. The FDA has many ways of learning about contamination issues, including its “market basket surveys,” where products are purchased from grocery stores in various regions of the country and subjected to independent testing.

While there are no new “market basket” assignments planned for this year, those already in the works will continue for the foreseeable future. Those include ice cream, Mexican cheese, environmental sampling of ready-to-eat food processing firms, and EU import audits. But the types of foods are only one aspect of the FDA’s effort. There is also the question of which pathogens will be emphasized. Recently, the FDA has concentrated heavily on listeria. In 2017, that focus is shifting to E. coli.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 1,600 people in the United States are sickened from listeria each year, and about 260 die. Pregnant women, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems are more likely to be sickened by the bacteria. By contrast, E. coli strains cause fewer deaths (about 30) but far more illnesses (an estimated 265,000).

Since 2011, there have been more than six times as many FDA recalls due to listeria than E. coli. Last year, 46 recalls were issued due to listeria, compared to just eight for E. coli. But the FDA’s change in strategy may result in an increase in E. coli recalls. Food companies should take this opportunity to ensure they are ready by reviewing their risk evaluations, preventative controls, and procedures for testing supplier ingredients.

These steps could help avoid a recall situation. But no amount of controls can prevent all recalls from occurring, so companies should also review their plans and hold mock recalls if necessary.  Contamination issues are taken seriously by both regulators and consumers, so being ready helps companies act quickly to protect the public and contain the damage.

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