Increasing evidence suggests that persistence of Listeria monocytogenes in food processing plants has been the underlying cause of a number of human listeriosis outbreaks. This study extracts criteria used by food safety experts in determining bacterial persistence in the environment, using retail delicatessen operations as a model. Using the Delphi method, we conducted an expert elicitation with 10 food safety experts from academia, industry, and government to classify L. monocytogenes persistence based on environmental sampling results collected over six months for 30 retail delicatessen stores. The results were modeled using variations of random forest, support vector machine, logistic regression, and linear regression; variable importance values of random forest and support vector machine models were consolidated to rank important variables in the experts’ classifications. The duration of subtype isolation ranked most important across all expert categories. Sampling site category also ranked high in importance and validation errors doubled when this covariate was removed. Support vector machine and random forest models successfully classified the data with average validation errors of 3.1% and 2.2% (n = 144), respectively. Our findings indicate that (i) the frequency of isolations over time and sampling site information are critical factors for experts determining subtype persistence, (ii) food safety experts from different sectors may not use the same criteria in determining persistence, and (iii) machine learning models have potential for future use in environmental surveillance and risk management programs. Future work is necessary to validate the accuracy of expert and machine classification against biological measurement of L. monocytogenes persistence.
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