Listeria basics still missing in Canada

"Refusing to make listeria test results public, and saying Maple Leaf is doing what CFIA expects of the company, leaves Canadians blindly trusting the two groups under whose watch 20 people died. It’s not particularly reassuring.”

That’s what I said in the Toronto Star this morning in response to Robert Cribb’s story yesterday that four months before the Maple Leaf outbreak started claiming lives, Canada’s food safety agency quietly dropped its rule requiring meat-processing companies to alert the agency about listeria-tainted meat.

Neither Maple Leaf nor the safety agency will release to the public the specifics of the listeria outbreak at the plant, so it is not possible to determine how the reporting rule would have affected the case.

One Toronto inspector said there had been a "trend" in positive listeria tests leading up to the outbreak that was never reported by the plant to federal inspectors. The inspector, and three others across the country, spoke on condition of anonymity because they fear disciplinary action if they spoke publicly. "There’s something wrong, that an inspector isn’t aware of a trend in their own plant," the inspector said.

That does not mean more inspectors. As Karen Selick, a lawyer in Belleville, Ont., wrote in the National Post yesterday, the recent listeriosis outbreak has produced a predictable chorus of accusations from big-government fans attempting to pin the blame on the alleged deregulation of Canada’s food safety system

There was a full-time government inspector on site in every Maple Leaf  plant, but the listeriosis outbreak happened anyhow. Would additional government inspectors have prevented the problem?  Probably not. 

Back to the Toronto Star
, where Maple Leaf spokesperson Linda Smith said her company makes all of its paperwork and testing available to inspectors but doesn’t alert them to positive test results.

"As per the regulations, there is no requirement to inform the CFIA about any listeria test result," she said. "The protocol Maple Leaf had in place was if they found a positive, they would sanitize the area and then you’d need to find three negatives in a row to leave that area alone. In (the Maple Leaf plant from which the outbreak was traced), there were occasional positives. … They would sanitize and test three subsequent times and in all of those cases, they did not find another positive in that area."

During the outbreak, Maple Leaf president Michael McCain said the company tests the Toronto plant’s surfaces 3,000 times a year.

"Positive results for listeria inside a food plant are common," he told reporters at the time, adding that "there was nothing out of the norm" leading up to the outbreak.

Asked for the listeria test results leading up to the outbreak, Smith said last week the company would not release them publicly.