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USDA Issues Listeria Warning

In an aggressive plan to fight Listeria, the federal government has ordered meat and poultry plants to reassess food safety plans within 30 days and begin testing packaged hot dogs, sausages, deli meats and other ready-to-eat products for the deadly bacteria.

The U.S. Agriculture Department is also warning pregnant women and the elderly to stop eating soft cheeses and cook hot dogs and deli meats thoroughly to avoid the risk of infection.

Tuesday's warning came as part of a USDA announcement of new rules requiring meat plants to begin testing ready-to-eat products for the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes. "We knew we had to do more," said Tom Billy, administrator of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. "This reassessment forces all plants to take immediate, real action."

Meanwhile, a small Missouri dairy recalled 135 pounds of a specialty cheese Tuesday that may be contaminated with Listeria. Morningland Dairy Farms recalled its Chives Colby Cheese, which is made from raw milk. Consumers should return it to the place of purchase for a refund.

The recalled cheese, sold in vacuum-packed plastic bags, carries the code A259 on the label. It was sold by mail and in retail stores in Missouri, Colorado, Utah, Illinois, Arizona, Tennessee, New York, California, Georgia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

Earlier this year, an outbreak of Listeria in Sara Lee Corp. hot dogs and deli meats claimed 21 lives and sickened more than 100, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The tiny bacterium, which is harmless to most people, is commonly found in air, water and elsewhere in the environment. But Listeria can be deadly for pregnant women, the elderly, chemotherapy patients and HIV-infected patients.

Symptoms of Listeria are similar to the flu, including fever or chills. If the bacteria spread to the nervous system, symptoms include a stiff neck, confusion or convulsions.

The federal government will immediately begin distributing Listeria warning brochures to physicians, nursing homes, public health officials and others who come into contact with pregnant women and people with weak immune systems.

The booklet, which is also available on the USDA's web page, includes the following food-handling steps to prevent infection by Listeria:

  • Heat lunch meats, hot dogs and other deli-style meats until they are steaming hot to kill any Listeria bacteria.
  • Use hot, soapy water to wash hands for at least 20 seconds as well as kitchen counters, cutting boards and utensils that come in contact with meat products. Because Listeria can grow slowly at refrigerator temperatures, use hot, soapy water to clean up spills from meat packages.
  • Don't eat soft cheeses such as feta, brie, Camembert, blue-veined or Mexican-style cheese. Cheeses that are safe to eat include cottage cheese, cream cheese, hard cheese, processed cheeses and yogurt.
  • Don't drink raw, un-pasteurized mlk or eat foods made from it, such as un-pasteurized cheese.
  • Take note of all sell-by and expiration dates for perishable foods that are precooked or ready-to-eat.
  • Wash fresh vegetables before eating.
The guidelines, which do not have the force of law, are expected to be adopted by most major meat and poultry plants. A recall of Listeria-tainted products can cost a company millions of dollars as well as unwelcome publicity that costs millions more in future sales.

The food industry is "committed to funding and supporting research to enhance our knowledge on outbreaks caused by the Listeria bacteria," said Stacey Zawel, vice president of Grocery Manufacturers of America.

The tests also apply to meat processing plants in foreign countries that are certified to export product to the United States, Billy said.

The USDA plans to work with the Food and Drug Administration over the coming year to develop food safety standards for all ready-to-eat foods that will cover a range of food borne diseases, he said.

More than 1,100 Americans are diagnosed annually with Listeria, and about one-fourth of them die.

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