Psychrotolerant growth of Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat (RTE) foods increases the risk to food safety, particularly when spoilage does not occur prior to L. monocytogenes growth of >1 log CFU/g. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the relative rates of quality deterioration and L. monocytogenes growth in six product systems (tomatoes, apples, fresh-cut cantaloupe, fresh-cut lettuce, baby spinach, and commercially processed turkey slices) under various conditions of refrigeration temperatures, atmospheres, and quality. Cantaloupe and spinach leaves supported >1 log CFU/g growth of L. monocytogenes before product spoilage at both 4 and 9°C. In some cases, conditions that improved microbial quality by extending shelf life also allowed L. monocytogenes growth of >1 log CFU/g before deterioration due to microbial spoilage. For example, storage with modified atmosphere packaging enhanced L. monocytogenes growth relative to spoilage microbiota in lettuce leaves (1.0-log increase 7 days before spoilage). In contrast, the use of secondary quality produce (i.e., apples, tomatoes, and lettuce with physical damage) reduced shelf life and, consequently, limited the time for L. monocytogenesproliferation. Therefore, spoilage cannot be considered a fail-safe indicator or proxy for limitation of shelf life across refrigerated RTE products.
Listeria growth that occurs before product spoilage enhances consumer risk in RTE foods.
Modified atmosphere packaging and surface damage enhanced Listeria growth versus spoilage.
Trade-offs between shelf-life extension and safety should be evaluated before eliminating date labels.