Saturday, September 20, 2008

Canada's Listeria Outbreaks: The Week In Review

Maple Leaf announced earlier this week that its Bartor Road production plant has been disassembled, was cleaned and sanitized multiple times, and has been tested repeatedly for Listeria monocytogenes. No trace of the pathogen remains, according to Michael McCain, the company's President and CEO.

The plant has been put back together – a feat that Humpty Dumpty never accomplished – and was scheduled to resume production on September 17th. The company is beginning with test runs under close scrutiny from CFIA. No products will be shipped until both the regulatory agency and Maple Leaf are satisfied that the company's enhanced food safety protocols are working as planned.

The plant's shutdown was prompted by a national outbreak of listeriosis traced to ready-to-eat deli products manufactured and packaged at Bartor Road. The outbreak – not yet officially over due to the long incubation period that Listeria monocytogenes is known for – has claimed at least 18 lives in six provinces (an additional 7 deaths are still under investigation). And it has sickened 48 or more people in seven provinces (9 more cases are suspected, but not yet confirmed). Many of the victims were elderly, living in an institution, or already in hospital when they developed their symptoms.

In the face of these statistics, it's easy to complain that CFIA and Maple Leaf are locking the barn door far too late. Had the company or federal inspectors been more rigorous in their surveillance, the outbreak might have been prevented. Had the Ontario Ministry of Health Laboratories been equipped to run genetic fingerprint analyses of Listeria monocytogenes cultures, the outbreak might have been detected much sooner. Instead, Ontario relied on the national lab, based in Winnipeg, MB for the genetic analysis.

Whatever Maple Leaf's past sins of omission and commission might be, the company is trying very hard to regain the confidence of Canadian consumers. Maple Leaf has posted pictures and descriptions of its clean-up operation on its web site. It also has emphasized to the public its commitment to food safety. Maple Leaf is talking a very good game. Whether the company maintains its follow-through will only be revealed over the next year or two.

Québec, too, is coming to the end of its own Listeria monocytogenes outbreak, traced to contaminated cheeses. Twenty-nine confirmed cases have been recorded so far, and one elderly victim died as a result of his/her infection. The contaminated cheeses were distributed through approximately 300 retail stores, where they were cut, packaged and sold. This distribution system resulted in the pathogen being transferred to other cheeses in the stores, greatly complicating both the epidemiological investigation and the recall process.

Not unexpectedly, the outbreaks have triggered political aftershocks. The opposition party in Québec has called for the province's Minister of Agriculture to initiate an internal inquiry into the conduct of his department. The federal opposition – and the families of some victims – have demanded the resignation of the Canadian Minister of Agriculture. 

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has announced an independent inquiry into the national outbreak. Whether or not this will happen – and what form the inquiry will take – will be determined by who wins Canada's federal election, scheduled for October 14th. 

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