Why the listeria threat will reduce in 10 years

25-06-2019    02:30   |    Edinburgh Napier University

A listeria outbreak in the UK has infected nine people and killed five of them in June 2019. The bacteria was transmitted via sandwiches and salads eaten in seven hospitals across England, supplied by the Good Food Chain, a company based in the Midlands. The outbreak came to light after samples from its meat supplier tested positive for the bacteria, which microbiologists refer to as L. monocytogenes.

People who contract listeria risk developing an infection called listeriosis, which can be dangerous to the likes of pregnant women, immunocompromised people and the elderly. The riskiest foods include soft cheeses, unpasteurised milk, salads and certain types of processed meat and fish.

This is the third significant outbreak around the world in the past several years. South Africa experienced the largest ever incidence in 2017-18, when more than 200 people died after eating a contaminated ready-to-eat sausage called polony. The outbreak led to product recalls from some 15 countries in the region.

Between 2015 and 2018, an outbreak in Europe killed ten people and infected more than 50. It was caused after a vegetable processing facility in Hungary contaminated frozen products being shipped to numerous countries, including the UK, Finland and Austria. The bacteria persisted despite the manufacturers following all the regulations on sanitation.

Disasters such as these could probably have been avoided if samples of these factory food products had been pre-tested using the latest genome sequencing technology. This has yet to filter down to industry – because the costs are still too high – so food manufacturers are still relying on standard laboratory bacteria tests. The good news for the future is that this is soon likely to change.

Ten years from now it could be a very different situation. We have already seen the way that the price to generate the raw data for a bacterial genome has fallen from US$50,000 to US$1 (£39,735 to £0.79) in the past decade. The technology has already become standard for the likes of researchers, which is usually a sign that it will reach industry a few years later. In the meantime, standards are rising anyway – operators in the supply chain are constantly reviewing their safety practices with a focus on consumer safety. These include increased microbial sampling and more sanitation and disinfection programmes.

So while listeria is a tough opponent for the food manufacturing industry, its days as a serious threat could well be numbered. Fairly soon, food manufacturers and their retailers are going to face a choice: pay for genome sequencing technology or save money and risk an outbreak, the result of which is a catastrophic effect on public health and the possible end of your company. In the end, they probably won’t need to think about it for very long.

Click here to read the complete article at The Conversation UK.

Photo credit: Pixnio, CC0 Public Domain.

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