The Codex Alimentarius Commission has moved quickly to clarify a newly ratified standard on permitted levels of listeria monocytogenes (Lm) in ready-to-eat (RTE) food after being challenged by the UK’s Chilled Food Association (CFA).
On Monday, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and World Health Organisation (WHO) released a statement summarising the main provisions of some of 30 new safety measures targeting dangerous bacteria and chemicals - including listeria monocytogenes in RTE products
The joint announcement from the UN bodies triggered alarm in the RTE industry after saying that while a maximum level of listeria has been set for certain foods where the bacteria cannot grow, a zero tolerance approach had been adopted in RTE products where growth of the bacteria was possible.
The announcement failed to mention, however, a third additional measure contained in the detailed Codex document allowing for an “Alternative approach” to zero tolerance to be taken. This stipulation, agreed at a Codex Committee for Food Hygiene (CCFH) meeting in Guatemala last December, gives individual countries the flexibility to extend the maximum level of 100 colony forming units (cfu)/g across the board to include foods where growth of the bacteria can occur.
EU and Codex confirmation
The European Commission confirmed that EU Regulation 2073/2005 permits this level of listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat food that can support Lm growth, so long as the food business can demonstrate this limit will not be exceeded throughout the food's shelf life.
A Codex Secretariat spokesman told FoodProductionDaily.com it was up to individual countries who adopted the alternative approach to establish their own systems to ensure parity in food safety standards with those nations which did not.
CFA Secretary General Kaarin Goodburn welcomed the clarification and explained its importance in terms of the potential consequences a blanket imposition of zero tolerance to listeria in RTE foods would have. Clearing up any confusion was important both for the food industry and the “future of food safety’, she said.
“We were concerned about the summary statement because if this had been true, food safety would not have been improved and it would have resulted in some companies going out of business,” she told FoodProductionDaily.com.
"FAO incorrectly stated in that "in ready-to-eat products where growth is possible, no listeria monocytogenes will be allowed", (zero tolerance). This does not reflect the position agreed, which took nearly 20 years to reach because the zero tolerance position is not accepted by the EU and several other countries.
“A Codex decision in favour of zero tolerance would have required revision of EU law without affording any additional public health benefit since this target is impossible to achieve consistently as Lm is ubiquitous in the environment. In addition, as has been demonstrated in the USA, zero tolerance reduces the incentive to regularly sample food, with relatively little testing being carried out.”
For the average healthy person the risk of becoming ill with listeriosis from food is very small and scientific evidence has shown that listeria are consumed commonly with no ill effects, said the CFA. The organisation has consistently argued that the best way to control Lm is through monitored preventative measures and appropriate controls including HACCP monitoring.