Friday, September 12, 2008

Maple Leaf Listeria: Aftermath Of An Outbreak

As this tragic outbreak drags on, updates posted by provincial health authorities sometimes overtake the timeliness of the federal data. Such is the case today.

We are still waiting ( at 7:00 pm) for the Public Health Agency of Canada's daily update on the illness and death totals in the Maple Leaf outbreak. As of 4 pm yesterday (Sept. 11th), PHAC posted the following totals:

  • Confirmed cases: 43 (34 in Ontario)
  • Suspect cases: 19 
  • Confirmed deaths attributed to the outbreak: 16 (14 in Ontario)
  • Deaths under investigation:

These numbers already are out of date. Ontario reported today that one of its suspect cases had been confirmed as part of the outbreak, raising the province's total to 35 confirmed cases. And Manitoba also reported today that its sole suspect case of listeriosis had been linked definitively to the outbreak.

It's far too easy to get caught up in the statistics, though, and to ignore the other ramifications of this national outbreak.

Impact on the lives of victims and their families. 
At least 16 – perhaps as many as 21 – families are mourning the untimely loss of a family member who did nothing more nefarious than eat deli meat processed and packaged at Maple Leaf's Bartor Road plant. Dozens of additional families have had their lives disrupted due to the illnesses suffered by outbreak victims who recovered.

Impact on Maple Leaf employees and shareholders.
The recall, alone, has cost the company approximately CDN$20 million. To this must be added the cost of lost business, and job layoffs. Probably, the company also will find itself spending a significant amount of money – either voluntarily or as a result of court proceedings – to compensate victims and their families. Maple Leaf is fortunate that Canada provides universal health care. And it's anyone's guess when – even whether – the Bartor Road facility will reopen.

Impact on the Canadian taxpayer.
Because Canada provides universal health care to its citizens and legal residents, the bulk of the medical costs incurred by outbreak victims will be borne by Canadian taxpayers. In addition, CFIA, PHAC and provincial health departments have had to carry the cost of the outbreak investigation and recall oversight.

Impact on the reputation of Canada's food safety system.
It's difficult to understate the impact of this outbreak on Canada's international food safety reputation. Canada's reputation already had been damaged by the slow, steady drip of reported BSE ("mad cow") findings. Now the country's processed meats also will be viewed askance. Mexico and China both halted the importation of Maple Leaf sausage casings after the outbreak was announced, even though the casings were produced at a different location from the contaminated deli meats. 

Impact on the meat industry.
As we reported previously, CFIA has advised all Canadian meat processors to disassemble, clean and sanitize their slicing equipment – a costly interruption of their normal production and cleaning cycles. Formax, Inc. has initiated a review of its recommended sanitation and operating instructions for its model S-180 slicer – the equipment that had harbored Listeria monocytogenes in Maple Leaf's Bartor road facility.

Impact on the just-announced Canadian elections.
The blame game began almost as soon as the outbreak was announced. At the federal level, the Liberal opposition party cast aspersions on the actions of the ruling Conservative Party. In Ontario, the opposition parties blamed the Liberal Party Premier Dalton McGuinty. Dr. Donald Low, Medical Director of the Ontario Public Health Laboratories, blames the lack of genetic typing facilities in the provincial lab for delays in recognizing the outbreak. The need to send isolates of Listeria monocytogenes from suspect meat and from patients to the national reference center (located in Winnipeg) for genetic fingerprinting cost several days.

Impact on the confidence of Canadians in the safety of the country's food supply.
This confidence has been badly shaken – by the Canada-wide Maple Leaf outbreak, the Ontario-wide recall of Ivanhoe cheeses, and the outbreaks of Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes associated with cheeses in Québec.

Anyone for an "old-fashioned" Montreal Smoked Meat on rye?

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