EUROPE – The European Food Safety Authority’s Panel on Biological Hazards (EFSA’s BIOHAZ Panel) has exposed the silent threat lurking within our food and feed production systems.

In a recent scientific opinion, the BIOHAZ Panel identified Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, and Cronobacter sakazakii as the resilient culprits defying conventional cleaning and disinfection efforts, establishing themselves in the nooks and crannies of the production environments over the long term.

Defined as the ability of microorganisms to withstand relentless cleaning and disinfection measures, microbial persistence poses a significant challenge to food safety.

The BIOHAZ Panel focused on sectors spanning feed for food animal production, meat, fish and seafood, dairy, eggs, fruits and vegetables, and low moisture foods.

Persistent strains of Salmonella, L. monocytogenes, and C. sakazakii were identified as major bacterial hazards, each claiming their domain within specific production sectors.

Despite attempts to pinpoint universal genetic markers responsible for persistence, the BIOHAZ Panel concluded that the phenomenon is a complex interplay of genetic determinants, environmental conditions, and risk factors.

Poor hygienic design emerged as the main risk factor, creating havens for pathogens where cleaning becomes a futile battle. Inadequate zoning, subpar cleaning practices, raw material hazards, and humidity also play pivotal roles in sustaining these persistent microbial foes.

Strategies to conquer microbial persistence

Armed with knowledge, the BIOHAZ Panel proposed a multifaceted approach to combat microbial persistence.

A well-designed environmental monitoring program, rooted in risk assessment, takes center stage. Whole genome sequencing (WGS) is advocated for detailed strain characterization, and a vigilant “seek-and-destroy” methodology is recommended once persistence is suspected.

Hygienic barriers within the food safety management system (FSMS), robust infrastructure, employee hygiene, and a proactive food safety culture were identified as critical mitigation measures.

The BIOHAZ Panel emphasizes the importance of thorough root cause analyses to address persistent pathogens at their source.

During outbreak investigations, the BIOHAZ Panel urges optimized sampling strategies and improved data reporting for a seamless link between production environments and outbreak cases.

The recommendation of interoperable standards for WGS metadata aims to enhance data-sharing, auditability, and transparency.

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