Majority of Delis Skimp on Equipment Cleanliness
Listeria is the third-leading cause of deaths due to foodborne illness in the US each year. Sliced deli meats are a major source of Listeria infections, and meats sliced at retail delis cause more infections and have a much higher rate of contamination than prepackaged deli meats.
Meats sliced and packaged at retail delis are “the major source of listeriosis illnesses” because of the potential for cross-contamination, according to a CDC study released today. The study, conducted by the CDC Environmental Health Specialists Network (EHS-Net), examined how often deli slicers were cleaned at the FDA-specified minimum frequency of four hours.
The FDA sets its recommendations regarding minimum cleaning frequency to prevent the spread of foodborne bacteria. These pathogens include Listeria, salmonella, E. coli and other foodborne germs that have the potential to cause severe illness and in even death.
Despite the compelling reasons to follow FDA guidelines, over half of US delis fail to clean their slicing equipment at the FDA specified minimum frequency. Such insufficient slicer-cleaning frequency “could lead to cross-contamination of deli meats with Listeria and other pathogens.”
Factors Associated with Better Deli Cleaning Practices
Independent outlets proved less likely to follow the four-hour rule than larger deli chains, the study found, and busier delis serving more customers cleaned their equipment in accordance with FDA standards more frequently than delis with fewer customers. These characteristics tend to indicate deli size, and the data is “consistent with other findings suggesting that both chain and larger establishments’ food safety practices tend to be better than those of independent and smaller establishments.” The study notes that “chain and larger delis might have more resources, more or better trained staff, or more standardized cleaning procedures.”
Other factors significantly associated with both managers and workers fully cleaning their slicers every four hours include the following:
- High Number of Slicers. The more pieces of equipment used by the deli, the more likely it is that they are cleaned on a regular basis.
- More Workers per Shift. A higher average number of workers per shift, especially when combined with more shifts per day, increase the likelihood that the slicers are cleaned every four hours.
- Food Safety Training. Workers and managers with food safety training are more apt to follow protocol. Required manager certification is associated with “more frequent reported slicer-cleaning. Hiring practices geared towards more experienced workers also increases compliance with FDA recommendations.
- Written Slicer-Cleaning Policies. Written slicer policies were often associated with more frequent reported cleaning, and are strongly recommended by the EHS-Net group.
- Equipment Quality. Slicers rated by workers as “easy to clean” were significantly associated with managers reporting the slicers were fully cleaned at least every four hours.
The EHS-Net authors recommend that states and localities require deli manager training and certification; adopt or follow the FDA Food Code; and consider encouraging or requiring delis to post written policies on meat slicer cleaning.
Some Argue Focus on Meats is Misguided
Bruce Farber, chief of infectious diseases at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, NY and Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park complimented the study results but said he is far more concerned about fresh produce than meat in the context of foodborne illnesses.
Compared with processed meats, “fresh fruits and vegetables are probably more risky to the average person…and that probably also applies to Listeria,” Farber said.
Farber indicated that his concerns center around a lack of quality control in the irrigation process. The produce is “irrigated and fertilized with water often contaminated by animals or sewage and they are not washed as vigorously as they often should be before eating,” Farber explained, noting that some fresh produce is more difficult to clean than others.
Implications for Public Health Practice
The study makes a number of discrete recommendations to prevent cross-contamination of deli meats with Listeria and other pathogens resulting from insufficient slicer-cleaning frequency. To help ensure that the slicers are cleaned every four hours to prevent foodborne illness, “states and localities should require deli manager training and certification, as specified in the FDA Food Code.” In addition, there should be consideration given to either encouraging or requiring delis to have written slicer-cleaning policies.
The study notes that retail food industry leaders “can also implement these prevention efforts to reduce risk in their food establishments.” Making sure to purchase equipment that workers consider “easy to clean” will also facilitate efforts to increase cleaning frequency.
Prevention efforts should first focus on independent and smaller delis, the study recommends, citing the lower frequency of slicer cleaning among delis falling into those categories.
*EHS-Net is a collaborative program of the CDC, FDA, USDA, and six EHS-funded state and local health departments.