Listeria monocytogenes, salmonella and E. coli are nasty bugs. They are a threat to consumers and businesses by causing foodborne illness and even death. Thankfully, thousands of people at dairy processors are dedicated to reducing this risk every day.
Listeria is a particularly high danger for dairy products as it is universal in the environment and can even grow under refrigeration. It can be especially deadly as evidenced by a 1985 incident where a soft, Mexican-style cheese resulted in 142 cases of infections and 28 deaths.
While pasteurization effectively controls Listeria, it remains a potential hazard through post-pasteurization contamination. Some products of greatest concern include the popular “fresh” Hispanic style and artisanal varieties.
Bringing dairy together
Developing research-based resources for the makers of all dairy products, including these smaller processors, is the goal of the checkoff-founded Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy’s Food Safety Committee. The group brings together manufacturers to share best practices and training to reduce risks and funds research to create more tools to protect dairy consumers.
Seven years ago, some of the industry’s top companies and checkoff leaders from the Innovation Center met to discuss Listeria. This meeting resulted in the industry helping to fund research and creating the Listeria Research Consortium.
This effort speaks to the precompetitive spirit that defines the Innovation Center and our members’ collective ability to look well beyond themselves for the greater good. They understand an issue for one is an issue for all.
While this group primarily consists of large processors, they have directed most of the research on areas that would not otherwise be funded. The focus is on helping small processors who tend to make these higher risk products. While these companies account for only a small percentage of U.S. production volume, there are thousands of them, including many with minimal food safety resources.
A dozen companies have joined National Dairy Council with their funding and use of their in-house experts. The consortium’s end goal is assuring consumer confidence in the safety of all dairy products, no matter a company’s size or production style. We’ve raised more than $1 million for 12 university-led projects aimed at:
• Listeria controls in products and in the dairy plant environment
• Fundamental understanding of Listeria, which could lead to new tools
• Focused risk mitigation tools for surfaced ripened and fresh cheeses
Our work includes some pretty high-tech stuff.
For example, we fund research that seeks to determine if cheese cultures can be modified so the cheese can defend itself against Listeria. There also are technologies, such as atmospheric cold plasma, which can safely treat a food’s surface that may have been compromised by Listeria, and ways to potentially make food contact surfaces antimicrobial.
Another consortium benefit is that we’ve connected dairy companies with some of the world’s leading Listeria researchers and experts. We hold regular meetings where they share the latest developments in food safety research and practices.
The Food Safety Committee also has developed many training classes and guidance tools. The guides offer a comprehensive approach to controlling Listeria and was authored by experts and reviewed by academic and government authorities. It has been translated to Spanish and is available for free download at www.usdairy.com/foodsafety along with other resources.
We can’t ever say for certain that we’ll never face another incident involving Listeria. But I can assure you that our industry has come together and invested to create research-based tools, awareness, and training workshops that have tipped the scale in our favor.