With the food safety spotlight currently, and squarely, on sausage (Daniele, Inc. salami linked to 184 illnesses in 38 states; at least 38 hospitalized; see FSIS press release), it might be worth the consumer’s while to spend a few minutes reviewing some sausage safety basics.  Here are some common questions and answers about sausage:

1.  Besides the manufacturer, who is responsible for ensuring the safety of sausage sold in the United States?

Answer:  Sausage is a meat product regulated by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.  FSIS inspects all sausages in interstate commerce and all sausages that are exported to other countries. But sausages made at a retail establishment may be under the jurisdiction of that State’s health or agriculture department.

2.  Is sausage a risky food to consume?

Answer:  It depends on who you ask, but the composition and preparation of sausage might be a factor that predisposes this product to bacterial contamination.  Sausage is obviously made from a variety of meat types and cuts, and just like ground beef, there are, as a result, many critical points in the sausage-making process where adequate controls are required in order to reduce or eliminate the likelihood that the product will become contaminated.  One such control that may often be overlooked is the safety of the spices (e.g. pepper) used to enhance flavor.  NOTE:  one working theory about the Salmonella Montevideo outbreak linked to Daniele, Inc salami is that the pepper in or on the sausage was contaminated.  All the more reason for manufacturers to know, and investigate, the food safety practices of their suppliers.

3.  What must be on the label of uncooked sausages (i.e. not "ready to eat")?

Answer:  Labels for sausages that are not ready to eat must contain safe handling instructions, among other things.  Sausages that are NOT ready to eat must bear certain features such as, safe handling instructions. In cases where the sausage is partially cooked or otherwise appears cooked but requires cooking by the consumer for safety, FSIS requires additional labeling features such as a prominent statement on the principal display panel, for example, "Uncooked, Ready to cook, Cook before eating, Cook and serve" or "Needs to be fully cooked." In addition, the product should display cooking directions that are sufficient for the intended user. The manufacturer would have to validate that the cooking directions are sufficient to destroy any pathogens that could be present.

If a sausage is perishable, the label must say "Keep Refrigerated." Some federally inspected shelf-stable sausages are not ready to eat. If so, they will be labeled as above but will not have "Keep Refrigerated" on the label.

4.  Are any Sausages Shelf Stable?

Answer:  Some dry sausages are shelf stable (in other words, they do not need to be refrigerated or frozen to be stored safely). Dry sausages require more production time than other types of sausage and result in a concentrated form of meat. If the product is shelf stable and ready to eat, the product is not required to have a safe handling statement, cooking directions or a "Keep Refrigerated" statement.

5  Should people "At Risk" eat dry sausages?

Answer:  Because dry sausages are not cooked, people "at risk" (older adults, very young children, pregnant women and those with immune systems weakened by disease or organ transplants) might want to avoid eating them. The bacterium E. coli O157:H7 can survive the process of dry fermenting, and in 1994, some children became ill after eating dry cured salami containing the bacteria.

After the outbreak, FSIS developed specific processing rules for making dry sausages that must be followed or the product must be heat treated. These products are included in the FSIS microbial sampling program for E. coli O157:H7, and in 1997, FSIS began to test fermented sausages for Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes.

6.  What is the significance of dates on packaged sausages?

Answer:  Although dating is a voluntary program and not required by the Federal government, if a date is used it must state what the date means. The product can be used after the date, provided it was stored safely. Follow the guidelines on the following page for maximum quality in sausage products.

"Sell By" date – tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires. "Best if Used By" date – date by which product should be used for best flavor and quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. "Use-By" date – the last date recommended for use of the product while at peak quality.

7.  How should I store sausage?  

Answer:  All sausage — except dry sausage — is perishable and therefore must be kept refrigerated. The following storage times should be followed for maximum quality.

If the sausage has a "use-by" date, follow that date. It is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product. If the sausage has a "sell-by" date, or no date, store it for the times recommended below.
Freeze sausage if you can’t use it within times the times recommended for refrigerator storage. Once frozen it doesn’t matter if the date expires because foods kept frozen continuously are safe indefinitely.