How long is that deli meat in the window good for? Listeria version

Listeria is a problem. And it’s not going away.

That stood out for me in the 2009 FoodNet data, providing a snapshot of foodborne barf across the U.S.

I told Elizabeth Weise in today’s The USA Today that the 19 per cent annual increase in listeriosis is in part due to the length of time people keep deli meats in refrigerators.

"Sliced deli meat is only good for two to three days." Listeria is particularly dangerous to pregnant women, young children and the elderly. It’s "a huge problem. Thirty percent of the people who get it die.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working on a risk assessment of deli meats, says David Goldman of the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service.

Those risk assessments have been around since at least 2000.

Several papers published in the latest issue of the Journal of Food Protection show that deli meats sliced – fresh – at the counter are more dangerous than the stuff bought in packages.

Endrikat, et al. note that deli meat was ranked as the highest-risk ready-to-eat food vehicle of Listeria monocytogenes within the 2003 U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service risk assessment (see, those risk assessments have been done).

“A sensitivity analysis, assessing the effect of the model’s consumer storage time and shelf life assumptions, found that even if retail-sliced deli meats were stored for a quarter of the time prepackaged deli meats were stored, retail-sliced product is 1.7 times more likely to result in death from listeriosis.”

The stuff people buy in packages is safer, because of the antimicrobials approved for use in the U.S. and because those slicers are really hard to clean.

I like that the Publix supermarket chain labels their deli meats to inform consumers that the stuff doesn’t last forever.

“The Publix Deli is committed to the highest quality fresh cold cuts & cheeses?. Therefore we recommend all cold cuts are best if used within three days of purchase?. And all cheese items are best if used within four days of purchase.”

The provision of such information did not require Congressional hearings and did not require some hopelessly-flawed consumer education campaign; it required a food safety type to say, this is important, let’s do it.