As the food industry continues to improve its food safety practices to combat foodborne pathogens such as Listeria monocytogenes, sharing "best practices" between companies is proving to be an effective strategy. Industry leader ConAgra Refrigerated Prepared Foods recently hosted 87 representatives from other meat and food processing firms for a day-and-a-half workshop on controlling listeria in the plant environment. The workshop comes on the heels of a call by President Clinton for meat processors to conduct environmental and end-product testing for listeria, and an industry survey that shows 90 percent of the industry already does so voluntarily.

"As an industry leader, we believe it is our responsibility to share our expertise with other companies. If we can help the entire industry do a better job in this area, we all benefit," said Tim Harris, president and chief operating officer, ConAgra Refrigerated Prepared Foods. "We have a moral obligation to provide the safest possible food to the consumer. Beyond that, it's a prerequisite to doing business. We can't begin to think about profits until we are making safe products."

Keith Brickey, vice president for quality assurance for the company, said, "We began addressing listeria in the plant environment in late 1980s. Our policy is to share what we learn with the USDA, other companies and consumer groups. In the process and at workshops such as this, we also learn from the experiences of others."

Speakers included Don DeLozier from the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) who commented on additional proposed regulations for listeria control. A proposed regulatory directive, currently in draft form, likely would expand the ready-to-eat product categories subject to sampling for pathogens and clarify the agency's role in sampling programs.

Dr. Bruce Tompkin, CRPF vice president for product safety, provided a review of listeriosis trends and current research on the organism. According to the Centers for Disease Control data, the listeriosis incidence rate has declined in the U.S. since the late 1980s and essentially has been flat for the last five years at about five cases per million people. University research is showing that not all strains of Listeria monocytogenes are equally pathogenic, with different strains causing illness in animals than in humans, for instance.

Dr. Tompkin outlined recommended strategies for controlling listeria in the processing plant:

1) Prevent establishment of the organism in niches or other sites that could lead to product contamination.

2) Implement an environmental sampling program that can assess in a timely manner whether the plant environment is under control.

3) Respond to any suspicious sampling results as rapidly and effectively as possible.

4) Verify that the problem has been corrected.

5) Provide regular, short- and longer-term assessments, such as weekly and quarterly reports, to identify chronic problem areas and trends.

Other CRPF quality assurance experts shared microbiological sample collection and testing techniques, effective cleaning methods for equipment, and equipment design tips to facilitate cleaning and preventing bacteria build-up. Hands-on problem-solving information came from Quality Assurance managers from four CRPF processing plants who shared their best practices for listeria control in equipment sanitation and plant construction.

This is the second listeria workshop offered for the industry by ConAgra Refrigerated Prepared Foods. In addition, all quality assurance personnel at the company's processing plants have received additional training to share the most current techniques for listeria control.

Headquartered in Downers Grove, Ill., ConAgra Refrigerated Prepared Foods is a leading producer and marketer of fresh and processed meats under an array of brands including Armour, Butterball, Cook's, Decker, Eckrich, Healthy Choice, Hebrew National and Swift Premium. ConAgra Refrigerated Prepared Foods is part of ConAgra, Inc., an international diversified food company headquartered in Omaha.