Seven deaths, dozens of illness investigated in Canadian listeria outbreak: pregnant women reminded of risks

My wife is six months pregnant and she hasn’t had deli meats or smoked salmon or other refrigerated, ready-to-eat foods for six months.

That’s because the bacterium listeria is fairly much everywhere, difficult to control, and grows in the refrigerator. It also causes stillbirths in pregnant women, who are about 20 times more likely to contract the bug than other adults.

The banter in Canada about government or industry taking the lead on food inspection, whether food should be produced in large or small places, is misguided at best and more likely, political opportunism.

There’s a lot of sick people out there and more to be uncovered. Listeria happens, but why did it take the Canadian authorities and industry seven weeks to issue advisories?

It seems part of a pattern of don’t ask, don’t tell, at least until it’s obvious to a whole bunch of others; there are questions about who knew what when.

Epidemiology, the association of something with disease – in this case, deli meats from Maple Leaf – was strong enough for the B.C. Centre For Disease Control to announce a link and a warning, while Ontario stayed mum. Why the difference? These folks are all PhDs in something, what’s going on?

Long before the current outbreak, the advice from the Canadian government about listeria was mushy:

“Although the risk of listeriosis associated with foods from deli counters, such as sliced packaged meat and poultry products, is relatively low, pregnant women and immunosuppressed persons may choose to avoid these foods.”

The advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control is clear: Do not eat hot dogs, luncheon meats, or deli meats, unless they are reheated.

It has been documented that many pregnant women are not aware of the risks associated with consuming refrigerated, ready-to-eat foods like cold cuts.

Whatever the outcome of the Canadian listeria outbreak, it’s time for Canadian bureaucrats to stop dancing and provide straight advice to consumers. Other countries do it.