Canada’s listeria outbreak serves as a lesson for all

Listeria outbreak rocketed Canada’s food safety system to top of mind in 2008

TORONTO — The deadly, nationwide outbreak of a previously anonymous
bacterium has pushed Listeria and food safety to the forefront of the
public consciousness, but experts warn that people are mistaken if they
think avoiding Maple Leaf cold cuts amounts to safe eating in 2009.

can expect food-borne illness outbreak levels to hold steady, or even
increase, in the absence of wholesale changes in how such events are
tracked and managed, said Rick Holley, a food science professor at the
University of Manitoba.

“The organisms that are going to be
involved in causing food-borne illnesses may change, but we have done
(very little) to reduce the frequency with which food-borne illness
occurs in Canada,” Holley said.

About 40 per cent of the food
produced in Canada is manufactured under federal regulations, while
much of the remainder is subject to provincial guidelines.

That’s symptomatic of the multi-jurisdictional, sometimes unco-ordinated, nature of food safety in Canada, said Holley.

someone says to me, ‘I’m not going to buy any more Maple Leaf meat
because it’s very risky, they don’t know what they’re doing, I’m going
to buy locally,’ Well, think again,” he said.

“The local guy doesn’t have to deal with the federal regulations.”

there was a government funded, central database for information on
food-borne illness, food scientists would be able to identify risks
then manage them, Holley said.

“If we carry on the way that we
are right now, nothing, believe me, is going to change in terms of the
frequencies with which we see food-borne illness in Canada, except that
it’s going to increase as the population increases.”

Brian Evans,
executive vice-president and chief veterinary officer of the Canadian
Food Inspection Agency, said the federal agency is “fully committed” to
building such a database.

“At the end of the day… prevention is our best effort and our most important priority,” Evans said.

the same time we do realize the limits, that no food-safety system will
ever be perfect and will ever be able to eliminate all risk from the
food supply.”

In August, Maple Leaf Foods (TSX:MFI) began a
recall of ready-to-eat meat products amid a nationwide Listeria
outbreak. Twenty people died in the outbreak, which was linked to a
Maple Leaf facility in Toronto.

Listeria, which had been little
known outside food safety circles, became a household word and many
were shocked to learn – via repeated messaging from both food
inspection officials and Maple Leaf CEO and president Michael McCain –
that it’s everywhere.

It’s in the soil, on produce, and likely on
kitchen countertops in millions of homes. Proper cleaning and cooking
protocols must be followed to reduce the threat of illness.

safety became a very much front-of-mind issue in 2008, not necessarily
for the right reasons, but nevertheless, I think that’s a positive
overall,” Evans said. “I think it is important that people have an

People are more familiar with food-borne
outbreaks of E. coli or salmonella because their incidence of causing
illness in people is higher than Listeria, Evans said. With that
bacteria, only the subspecies Listeria monocytogenes causes human
illness, and then only in the elderly, immuno-compromised and pregnant

The public education efforts of McCain and Evans appear to be working, at least for Maple Leaf.

data shows consumer confidence in early December was at 91 per cent –
up from 64 per cent in the immediate aftermath of the recall.

“(It) was certainly a game-changing year for food safety in this country in many ways,” McCain said.

September, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced an investigation
into the listeriosis outbreak. Both McCain and the union representing
CFIA inspectors would like to see that happen.

“We would certainly, very actively and assertively, encourage the government to get on with the investigation,” McCain said.

The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to questions about the investigation.

Leaf has been scrubbing its image clean, implementing intense
sanitization and testing protocols, but some say the company was never
the problem.

The real risk lies in a persistent lack of resources
that “handcuff” CFIA employees, says the president of the Agriculture
Union at the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

“They’re making
all the right moves in terms of shoring up the program deficiencies,
(but) they don’t have the resources to actually make it happen,” said
Bob Kingston.

“Now it’s in the government’s court. CFIA is trying to make the appropriate changes, but they’ll simply need people to do it.

“If the government won’t come through then we could be in a worse situation than we were before.”

The CFIA may be facing challenges, but there have been no cuts to the budget as a result of the economic downturn, Evans said.

the time the Maple Leaf recall began making headlines, Kingston has
waged a campaign against a government move toward greater industry

Kingston said inspectors drown in paperwork and can’t keep a proper eye on the plant floor.

“I think it allowed for what happened at Maple Leaf to go on as long as it did without anybody knowing about it,” he said.