Importance of Food Safety Testing Highlighted by Recent Listeria Scare

It is likely that most people are aware of the dangers posed by organisms such as E. coli and salmonella when present in food. Quite possibly, many are also familiar with the organism known as campylobacter that, in the UK and Europe, was found, in some cases, to contaminate more than 75% of fresh chicken during surveys conducted between 2007 and 2008. While adequate cooking will often be sufficient to negate the risk of food poisoning, the danger remains due to the possibility that the organism could, through accidental contact, contaminate foodstuffs that are normally eaten uncooked. Such risks serve to underline the importance of effective food safety testing.

In South Africa, we now have a heightened awareness of bacterial contamination, due to the recent outbreak of an infection known as listeriosis. The name derives from that of the most common causative organism, Listeria monocytogenes, although the species within this genus have also been implicated. To date, at least 180 deaths have been attributed to this outbreak, which occurred first during last December in Gauteng where 727 confirmed cases, the largest outbreak ever recorded according to the World Health Organisation, contributed to the first 40 deaths. Given that the source was found in processed meats, it seems likely the outbreak stemmed from some flaw in food safety testing by the producers.

In the past, the tests available were time consuming, resulting in delayed distribution whilst awaiting results, prompting some producers to take a chance. Today, advances in practical microbiology have made it possible to detect and to identify offending organisms in a matter of hours, but such abilities are only of value when the quality-control programme in place is sufficiently comprehensive and is routinely implemented to the letter.

Needless to say, those products subsequently found to contain organisms apparently missed by the producer’s food safety testing have been recalled, but given the vast area over which items such as polonies, viennas, and russians are typically distributed, a full recall can take quite a time, and in some cases, it is possible that a more distant batch could remain in circulation, at least until its use-before-date.

No doubt the producers of processed meat products in South Africa will have reacted vigorously to recent events, accepting them as a serious wake-up call that they will need to address as a matter of urgency. Precautions are not just essential for the manufacturer, however. Whether a producer or a restaurateur, it is essential to ensure adequate cleansing of working surfaces and utensils, as well as monitoring the hygiene habits of personnel. As an adjunct to food safety testing or for use in commercial kitchens, there are also some very effective test kits that are designed to check the efficiency of one’s hygiene measures.

The effectiveness of quality control, especially with regards to edibles, will be determined by regimens in place and, to an even greater extent, by the nature of the methodology and the quality of reagents and equipment employed for this purpose. In practice, these attributes provide a sound summary of the reasons why so many of those involved in the production and handling of South Africa’s foods and beverages now choose IEPSA as their preferred supplier of effective food safety testing kits.

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