OK, we get it, listeria is everywhere; what are you going to do about it, Maple Leaf?

Early on in the Aug. 2008 outbreak of listeria that killed 22 Canadians, the manufacturer, Maple Leaf Foods, adopted the line that, listeria is everywhere.

CEO Micheal McCain said,

“All food plants and supermarkets have some amount of listeria.”

Yesterday, when Maple Leaf announced yet another recall of product – this time involving nine wiener products produced under the Hygrade, Shopsy’s and Maple Leaf brands produced at its plant in Hamilton, Ontario – the listeria is everywhere line was … everywhere.

Randy Huffman of Maple Leaf said in the company blog yesterday,

“Listeria is a common bacteria – it can be in virtually 100% of refrigerated food plants. It also exists at low levels in one out of every 200 ready-to-eat food products and even higher levels in many other foods we eat …

“This creates a real dilemma for us. I have to be frank with you. Nothing we can do – nothing anyone can do – will completely eliminate Listeria from the food supply. Listeria is found in about 0.5% of ready-to-eat meat and poultry products based upon best estimates from the USDA. This percentage means that one out of every 200 packages is likely to be positive. I know consumers might prefer that this number was zero, and food safety professionals certainly strive for this goal.”

I thought you were Randy, but if you’d rather be frank, sure. And this is a Canadian recall, you may want to explain what USDA is.

Both Huffman and Mansel Griffiths, professor in the food science department at the University of Guelph, invoked the consumer-wants-zero-risk although I’ve seen no evidence to back up this straw-person argument. Griffiths said,
“There’s no such thing as 100-per-cent safe foods, no matter what food we eat.”

No one asked for risk-free food; but consumers do expect that those in charge of whatever portion of the farm-to-fork food safety system take responsibility for their own actions. Me, I told the Toronto Star the risk is that the listeria contamination could have happened after processing, and people, especially kids, eat wieners out of the fridge without reheating.

Back to the issue: if listeria is everywhere, what should processors and retailers do about it?

• Warning labels. Pregnant women and other at-risk populations should be informed of listeria risks, using a variety of messages and a variety of media. The supermarket Publix places all of its deli-cut meats into a plastic bag that says:

“The Publix Deli is committed to the highest quality fresh cold cuts & cheeses???

Therefore we recommend all cold cuts are best if used within three days of purchase???

And all cheese items are best if used within four days of purchase”

• Make listeria testing data public.

• Market food safety efforts at retail.

Because listeria is everywhere.