More of the same from Maple Leaf, CFIA

Maple Leaf Foods president and CEO Michael McCain said last night that “consistent with normal findings and practices” listeria continues to be found at the same facility that produced cold-cuts linked to at least 20 deaths and 50 illnesses in Canada.

“Listeriosis is an exceptionally rare illness,” he said, “but we are taking every precaution possible.”

I’m sure the illness didn’t feel exceptionally rare to the sick and the dead.

Mr. McCain also reiterated that,

“Listeria exists in all food plants, all supermarkets and presumably in all kitchens,”

which is exactly why my pregnant wife and Ben’s pregnant wife didn’t go near Maple Leaf or any other cold cuts during their pregnancies. So I’m sure Mr. McCain will put as much energy and resources into advising vulnerable populations to stay away from Maple Leaf cold-cuts and other refrigerated ready-to-eat foods as he is into re-opening the Toronto plant.

And if Maple Leaf is now “behaving in the most conservative way possible,” what were they doing before the listeria outbreak became public knowledge on Aug. 20, 2008?

Confidential data obtained by the Toronto Star and  CBC and reported last night revealed that two-thirds of Maple Leaf meat samples collected from Toronto hospitals and nursing homes tested positive for a virulent strain of listeria just before the country’s largest food recall.

The test results show a dramatically high percentage of bacteria-laced ham, corned beef, turkey, and roast beef was being served to hundreds of vulnerable hospital patients and seniors. Experts say it’s more contamination than they have seen and further evidence of a health risk that should have reached the public’s attention sooner.

“There shouldn’t be any positives,” says Rick Holley, a food safety expert at the University of Manitoba. “The reality is if you did a survey in the market, you might find one or two at most out of this sample that are positive … And it is a particularly virulent strain of listeria. It’s one of the bad ones.” …

“I’d never seen anything like this,” said Dr. Vinita Dubey, Toronto’s associate medical officer of health. “The fact that so many came back positive shows how contaminated the source was.”

So given the high level of contamination, what did the Canadian Food Inspection Agency do? Insist on more testing, because epidemiology is not enough to protect the health of Canadians.

In a conference call with members of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency on Aug. 14, Toronto officials told the agency they had enough evidence to make a connection and pressed the CFIA to warn the public about Maple Leaf products.

CFIA officials, however, said they needed to wait for one more set of test results from unopened meat packages.

While the CFIA had identified listeria bacteria at the Maple Leaf Foods meat processing plant in Toronto and even begun an investigation of the company by that time, the federal agency said it wanted definitive test results to see whether it was the same strain as the one responsible for the outbreak.

The CFIA declined a request for an interview with CBC News. The agency maintained that it requires hard scientific proof before it can recall food or issue warnings to the public.

Toronto Public Health said it had gathered plenty of evidence during July and August that linked Maple Leaf meat products to the outbreak, including:
    * two deaths linked to listeriosis
    * more cases being reported
    * meat samples from sandwiches tested positive
    * samples from opened meat packages were taken

During a 2005 outbreak of salmonella found in bean sprouts in Kingston, Ont., regional health officials didn’t wait for definitive proof to issue their own recall.

"I think it’s a less desirable approach, from the point of view of the people we serve, to say, ‘We’ll have to wait and have confirmation before we can intervene,’" said Dr. Ian Gemmill, the medical officer of health for the Kingston Area Health Unit.

The locals sound increasingly frustrated with CFIA. Until there is a clear policy on when to go public, expect more failures and frustration in the future.

Asked for the listeria test results leading up to the outbreak, the Maple Leaf spokesthingy said last week that, in the spirit of open and transparent co-operation and a genuine desire to improve the safety of refrigerated, ready-to-eat foods, the company would not release them publicly.