The microbial ecology of high-risk, chilled food factories; evidence for persistent Listeria spp. and Escherichia coli strains

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Abstract

Aims

The intention of this study was to provide evidence of any Listeria spp. or Escherichia coli strain persistence, and to identify whether strains of these organisms adapt to specific environmental or product niches in food factories.

Methods and Results

A 3-year assessment of the microbial ecology of four, ready-to-eat food-processing factories was undertaken in which approx. 196 000 and 75 000 product and environmental samples were examined for Escherichia coli and Listeria spp. respectively. A total of 152 E. coli isolates (44 environmental and 108 product in 62 ribogroups) and 260 Listeria spp. isolates (174 environmental and 86 product in 30 ribogroups) were identified and ribotyped. The overall prevalence of E. coli (0·08%), all Listeria spp. (0·35%) and L. monocytogenes (0·23%) was very low. Some 10 E. coli ribogroups and 14 Listeria spp. ribogroups showed evidence for persistence, defined as the isolation of the same strain, from the same site, over a prolonged time period. The majority of E. coli strains were product niche oriented whilst the majority of Listeria spp. strains were environmental niche oriented.

Conclusion

Current UK high-risk food factory designs, personnel hygiene and cleaning and disinfection regimes are sufficient to control Listeria spp. and E. coli to very low levels.

Significance and Impact of the Study

Persistent strains of these organisms, however, can remain within factory high-risk production areas over considerable time periods, warranting an examination of the strain persistence mechanisms and alternative hygiene controls.

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