Playing politics with listeria in Canada

“In October, 1996, 16-month-old Anna Gimmestad of Denver drank Smoothie juice manufactured by Odwalla Inc. of Half Moon Bay, Calif. She died several weeks later; 64 others became ill in several western U.S. states and British Columbia after drinking the same juices, which contained unpasteurized apple cider –and E. coli O157:H7. Investigators believe that some of the apples used to make the cider may have been insufficiently washed after falling to the ground and coming into contact with deer feces.

“The Odwalla outbreak, and dozens of others, illustrate some basics about E.  coli O157:H7 that have gotten lost in the rush –especially by some virulent columnists –to describe the Walkerton outbreak through the filters of political preference. E. coli O157:H7 is part of nature, a natural world that will change and adapt as humans alter their version of the world. But for all the railing against so-called factory or industrial farming, the links remain tenuous. In fact, such assumptions and finger-pointing can actually be dangerous as individuals become less vigilant, assuming that such problems only happen to other people in other places.”

That’s what I wrote in Canada’s National Post on June 3, 2000 in the wake of the Walerton, Ontario, E. coli O157:H7 outbreak which would kill seven and sicken 2,500 in a town of 5,000.

The person in charge of the municipal water system for Walkerton was found to add chlorine based on smell and criminally convicted; the farm was a cow-calf operation that was the poster farm for Environmental Farm Plans.

No matter.

The same mind-numbing politics is now dominating the listeria outbreak in Canada which has killed 19 and sickened dozens.

The cause of the outbreak appears to be the accumulation of listeria in meat slicers used at the Maple Leaf plant in Toronto. The feds have advised all registered establishments that manufacture ready-to-eat meat products to step up their cleaning protocols. Bill Marler noted some other examples related to listeria and meat slicers in a post this morning.

No matter.

A letter writer to the Toronto Star this morning says the only people affected by listeria are “those whose immune systems are low because they have been eating a nutritionally poor diet of mostly processed foods … we would all be better off if we bought fresh, unprocessed food from local farms. These foods would keep our immune systems strong so they could easily ward off a few harmful bacteria.

Guess the letter writer has never heard of pregnant women getting listeria (see next post).

On Saturday, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper set the terms of reference for an investigation into the listeriosis outbreak:

• Examine the events, circumstances and factors that contributed to the outbreak.

• Review the efficiency and effectiveness of the response by federal agencies in terms of prevention, the recall of contaminated products, and collaboration and communication among partners in the food safety system and the public.

• Make recommendations aimed at enhancing prevention of future outbreaks and the removal of contaminated products from stores and warehouses.

No matter.

The report is due before March 15, 2009.

Harper then called a Canadian election for Oct. 14, 2008.

Bob Kingston, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada’s Agriculture Union, said in a news release,

We already know the problem is too few inspectors . . . in a system that relies too much on the food industry to police itself.”

Apparently the union inspectors have super vision and can see listeria – especially in the depths of slicing machines.

Others are calling for a full-scale inquiry, like what happened after Walkerton and in Ontario after some dodgy meat slaughtering practices were uncovered (the Haines report). I participated in both inquiries. There is no need for another.

The Ministers of Agriculture and Health, or the Prime Minister’s office, need to call up the bureaucrats and say,

"People are pissed. Give me a clear accounting of who knew what when so I can give a clear accounting to the public. I want the report on my desk Monday at 7 a.m. I’ve got an election campaign going on."