Research – Assessment of Microbial Populations in the Manufacture of Vacuum-Packaged Ready-to-Eat Roast Beef and in a Related Production Plant

Journal of Food Protection

Some microbiological criteria were monitored for 6 months in vacuum-packaged roast beef (15 production batches), raw beef (10 batches), and other meat products (12 batches) produced in an Italian small to medium-size enterprise. Fifty-five environmental swab samples also were analyzed. The main bacterial groups were identified by cultural methods according to International Organization for Standardization standards. Listeria monocytogenes was enumerated with the most-probable-number protocol, and species identification was confirmed with a specific PCR assay. Immediately after vacuum packaging, all ready-to-eat (RTE) products had low mean aerobic colony counts (<102 to 2.4 × 102 CFU g−1), anaerobic colony counts (1.6 to 6.5 × 101 CFU g−1), Enterobacteriaceae counts (1.1 to 1.4 × 101 CFU g−1), and Escherichia coli counts (generally below the detection limit). Nevertheless, the prevalence of L. monocytogenes in these samples was 3.7%. In roast beef samples, the aerobic and anaerobic colony counts reached unacceptable levels (>106 CFU g−1) after 14 days of refrigerated storage. Because the prevalence of L. monocytogenes increased to 13.3% during storage, a substantial reduction in the shelf life of these products is recommended. Surfaces without direct contact with food (floors and drains) had the highest mean counts for aerobic colonies (8.0 × 103 to 9.5 × 105 CFU/cm2), anaerobic colonies (2.9 × 103 to 3.2 × 104 CFU/cm2), Enterobacteriaceae (1.5 × 101 to 8.4 × 101 CFU/cm2), and E. coli (6.0 to 7.7 CFU/cm2). The levels of L. monocytogenes on direct food contact surfaces were below the detection limit, but more than 25% of floor samples were contaminated. These results reveal the persistence of L. monocytogenes in food processing environments, although at very low levels, posing a high risk of postcooking recontamination for RTE products. To improve hygienic conditions and reduce cross-contamination, an increase in operator awareness and a reassessment of surface sanitization protocols are needed.

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