The research found that of 174 samples of ready-to-eat deli meats bought in supermarkets across the greater Adelaide area, over three-quarters had bacterial levels that failed to meet food standards guidelines.
“Although no recognised food poisoning pathogens such as Escherichia coli or Salmonella species were found on these meats, the high bacterial count suggests that hygiene has been compromised,” said Adelaide University’s Professor Michael Reichel.
“Such out-of-control processes are also susceptible to contamination with serious food poisoning organisms.”
The study was carried out last year by students, and the full results will be presented this week at the Australian Veterinary Association’s annual conference in Perth. The randomly selected supermarkets have not been identified.
Sliced salami, fritz and roast pork showed the highest proportions of unsatisfactory bacterial counts. Ham and chicken meats had lower levels of bacteria, but two-thirds of those samples still failed to meet satisfactory standards.
Over 15% of samples showed the presence of coliform bacteria, which may provide evidence of faecal contamination. Some samples had total bacterial counts of more than 100m per gram, representing “overt spoilage”, said Reichel.
“The presence of coliform would indicate really poor hygiene, such as people not washing their hands after going to the toilet. These levels of bacterial counts tell us that storage conditions, product handling and turnover should all be investigated.”
Reichel added there is also an issue of quality as well as food safety, and called on supermarkets and retailers to take a hard look at their processes and staff compliance.
“Ready-to-eat deli meats are consumed daily by up to half of Australia’s population,” he said. “People have a right to expect that the product they buy on the weekend should last through the following week, not go slimy in a couple of days.”
He added that more microbiological testing by the retailers themselves would help ensure proper processes were adhered to.