Quebec cheese linked to two deaths, one miscarriage, 120 illnesses — gets government bailout

I was a fan of Quebec agriculture minister Laurent Lessard.

After two separate outbreaks  — one listeria, one salmonella – in Quebec-made cheese that killed two, caused one miscarriage, sickened six other pregnant women and their newborn babies, and sickened a total of about 120 people, Lessard ordered a crackdown.

When asked about compensation for cheese retailers who had to discard potentially contaminated product, Lessard said on Sept. 17,

"The province is not there to compensate. We aren’t an insurance company."

Retailers have a responsibility to market safe products, and if there’s a risk associated to what they’re selling they have to absorb the losses, he said.

But being astute about Quebec politics and the role of dairy producers, Lessard didn’t rule out possible compensation for cheese producers, even though provincial food inspectors found traces listeria in 16 different establishments, either on cheese or processing equipment.

Three weeks later, and it appears that politics has caught up with the public health overtures of Monsieur Lessard as he announced Friday that Quebec’s small cheese producers and retailers will receive a three-year, $8.4-million provincial aid package, along with $11.3-million in interest-free loans.

"I want to reassure Quebec consumers. All of Quebec’s cheese producers are presently offering safe and secure products.”

Approximately half of the aid package will be spent on improving quality control. Government inspections will be conducted monthly, the minister said, and retailers will receive guidelines on improving the handling of cheeses.

Producers and retailers reported a significant drop in sales of Quebec cheeses, which last year alone totaled $2.6-billion.

Where’s the compensation for the sick people? Where’s the effort to accurately present the risks of soft cheeses (oh, and deli meats) to certain populations, like pregnant women and the elderly.

I’m not such a fan anymore.