Almost one in three pre-packed sandwiches are stored or displayed at the wrong temperature, increasing the risk of food poisoning, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) has warned.
The authority has just published a study into the microbiological safety of pre-packed sandwiches. While the findings show that 99% of sandwiches were satisfactory when tested for the foodborne bacteria, Listeria, there was concern over the storage of these food items.
Altogether, 29% of pre-packed sandwiches were being stored or displayed at temperatures higher than five degrees Celsius. Pre-packed sandwiches should be stored at five degrees Celsius or cooler, as this stops or slows down the growth of bacteria.
Meanwhile the study found that four of the five sandwiches, which were classified as unsatisfactory or unacceptable/potentially hazardous, were stored above eight degrees Celsius, with one sandwich displayed unrefrigerated at almost 18 degrees Celsius.
For three of these sandwiches, there was at least one day remaining until the use-by date expired, which could have allowed even more bacteria to grow.
While the incidence of Listeria infection is rare in Ireland, there is a high mortality rate - up to 40% - and only small numbers of the bacteria need to be consumed to cause serious infection.
"Storing pre-packaged sandwiches at the incorrect temperature can lead to food poisoning. The onus is on retailers and caterers to ensure pre-packaged sandwiches are refrigerated at the recommended temperature of five degrees Celsius or cooler.
"Hospitals and other establishments, which cater for vulnerable patients and the elderly, should be vigilant in monitoring temperature control and use-by dates. Equally important, manufacturers must ensure that accurate and realistic use-by dates are applied to the sandwiches they make," insisted FSAI chief executive, Prof Alan Reilly.
The study involved the testing of 948 pre-packaged sandwiches from retailers and caterers across the country. Sandwiches made to order, unwrapped sandwiches and sandwiches which receive heat-treatment, e.g. toasted sandwiches and paninis. were excluded from study.
It found that nearly all (99%) of these pre-packaged sandwiches were labelled correctly with a use-by date, as required by law.
However, two food safety issues were noted - the use-by date had expired for a small proportion (1%) of sandwiches collected and the shelf life given to some sandwiches may have been too long.
The FSAI pointed out that foods typically associated with Listeria contamination include ready-to-eat products made with red meat, poultry and fish, including frankfurters, pâté, and smoked salmon.
Commonly affected dairy products include soft cheeses, such as brie, camembert and roulade, semi-soft farmhouse cheeses and unpasteurised milk. Prepared salads, such as coleslaw, are foods which can also support the growth of the pathogen.
"Ready-to-eat foods have been identified as a high-risk food group, as they are intended by the producer or manufacturer for direct human consumption, without the need for cooking or other processing methods usually associated with eliminating or reducing bacteria to levels acceptable for human consumption," the FSAI said.
Anyone can become ill from eating food contaminated with Listeria, but the people most vulnerable to infection are pregnant women (and their unborn children), newborns, adults with weakened immune systems, such as people with HIV/AIDS, cancer or diabetes, and the elderly.
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