Bert Mitchell: Canadian listeria controls lacking

Bert Mitchell saw jim Romahn’s Dec. 22/08 piece about listeria and Maple Leaf Foods in FSnet and, and decided he had to write.

Dr. Mitchell’s no lightweight. Among other achievements, he was Director of the Bureau of Veterinary Drugs at Health Canada from 1982-1988,an associate director at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine from 1988-2001, and the current president of the American Association of Retired Veterinarians.

Bert says:

I want to congratulate and encourage Jim Romahn for his article Maple Leaf, Michael McCain, and Unanswered Questions. I read his article on the FSnet list serve webpage. I do not claim to be an expert in the microbiology of Listeria or manufacturing procedures to avoid it but I do want to encourage Jim, and others in his profession, because the picture of cause and control in this Maple Leaf case is incomplete.

While Michael McCain seems to be gathering year–end goodwill for his handling of the Listeria contamination in the Maple Leaf plant, I think it is too early for applause. Effective long term solutions have not been put in place.

Jim is on-point in arguing for better health protection in Canada. He is helping expose a glaring lack of complete information that should be readily available from Health Canada, CFIA, or Maple Leaf Foods about the source and spread of the Listeria found in sliced meat cold cuts that killed 20 Canadians and sickened many others. Specifically, he is spotlighting the continuing lack of the better labeling and improved manufacturing procedures needed to protect elderly, immune weakened, and pregnant persons. This example of poor health protection in Canada has been seen before. Listeriosis in people has occurred previously in Canada and because of regulatory inaction, it can happen again.

Listeria in cold cuts is a health threat that continues to exist in Canada. The recent hype from Maple Leaf in advertising the end of Listeria risk is just talk without support. If the company or the federal bureaucracy have evidence that labeling and manufacturing procedure changes are unnecessary, they should publish the evidence for the public to see.

As a result of inadequate labeling/manufacturing regulations, inadequate enforcement, and excessive collegiality between the federal bureaucrat and the industry it regulates, the Listeria public health threat continues to exist in Canada. About 10 years ago, the U.S. found Listeria in wieners. They changed labeling and required a post packaging cooking step. These changes appear to be the reason for no Listeria in U.S. cold cuts. For these 10 years, an apparently effective regulatory example has been on paper and worked effectively in practice to prevent Listeria in cold cuts in the U.S. The evidence of need for better Canadian labeling and manufacturing procedures for cold cuts seems obvious. What am I missing in this seemingly black-white image?

Investigative journalism is an important factor in uncovering the stinking wet spots that can exist within big bureaucracies and industries. Investigative reporting is particularly important in instances in which the public is indifferent to the issue or prefers to believe that the government can be trusted to always do what is right. Everyone has a responsibility to be vigilant about government action and inaction.

The investigative journalist reviews the evidence, thinks about alternatives, asks questions, and writes articles. In this case they write articles about why Canadians have died unnecessarily. Investigative journalism is a critically important element in effecting change. Jim Romahn has the right line of questions. He deserves nomination for yet another journalistic award.

In Canada, the labeling and manufacturing controls needed to control Listeria in cold cuts are not in place. Just as Canadians experienced no outbreak of Listeria for a decade, there may be none for years to come. What we do know is that the 2008 Listeria outbreak in Canada has not motivated sufficient change to prevent another outbreak and more unnecessary deaths. It is this flaw that Jim Romahn is addressing and the investigation I applaud.