Maple Leaf listeria plant to re-open, creates new food safety position, questions remain

Three weeks after the Maple Leaf financial dude told the markets the plant would reopen, the Maple Leaf listeria plant is about to reopen and produce deli-meats.

The company has videos, a long list of food safety enhancements they are adopting, and has created the position of ‘chief food safety officer.’

Guess I thought a $5 billion a year company would already have one of those. But that’s one of the things I find most challenging – how to compel everyone from maintenance crews to CEOs that food safety matters, especially in the absence of an outbreak. Now there’s an outbreak, 24 suspected or confirmed dead, 56 ill.

"Throughout this incident we have steadfastly placed consumers’ interests first" said Michael McCain, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods.

That remains to be seen as more is uncovered about why there were delays and lousy notification as news of the outbreak initially trickled out. But yes, once the problem became publicly apparent, the company acted in great fashion.

The Canadian Medical Association Journal yesterday called for a full public inquiry. Not necessary, and a waste of taxpayers money. A few Bill Marler lawsuits would reveal far more about who knew what when.

Or people could do their jobs:

• Maple Leaf in conjunction with the various public authorities should provide a full public accounting of who knew what when and what was done to find out more;

• some sort of warning system about the risk of listeriosis in foods must be developed for at-risk populations – especially pregnant women and the elderly because they are the ones who get sick and die; and,

• make all data of listeria testing in plants public so others in the industry can improve and consumer confidence can be enhanced with data not just words.

Stay away from the Chinese baby formula – dozens of babies sick in China cause of melamine in baby formula

Elizabeth Weise reports in the USA Today today that Chinese newspapers are reporting that infant formula has been linked to kidney problems and kidney stones in babies there because the formula contains melamine — the same industrial contaminant that poisoned and killed thousands of U.S. dogs and cats last year.

No baby formula approved for use in the United States is manufactured in China, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"We want to reassure the public that there’s no contamination in the domestic supply of infant formula," says Janice Oliver, deputy of operations for FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

In addition, no U.S. manufacturers or marketers of infant formula receive ingredients from China. "We contacted all of them,’ says Oliver.

"Chinese-manufactured infant formula is illegal in the United States and should not be coming into the United States, and we have controls at the borders to insure that infant formula products don’t come in," says Oliver.

However, the agency is concerned that illegal infant formula may be sold in Asian and ethnic markets. That happened once before in 2004, when fake infant formula from China, which killed dozens of babies in that country, was found in at least one U.S. store.

The FDA is working with state officials to make sure that all Chinese, Asian and ethnic markets are aware of the problem, Oliver says. The agency is also alerting the Chinese community to avoid using China-produced formula.

Reports in the Chinese media from several provinces say that as many as 60 babies have been admitted to hospitals with kidney stones and that the illnesses have been linked to use of a specific brand of powdered infant formula.

Melamine is a by-product of plastic manufacturing. It can be used to mimic high-protein additives such as wheat and rice gluten. Adding melamine to ordinary wheat flour, for example, makes it test as if it is the higher protein, higher cost wheat gluten.

Pregnant woman miscarries because of listeria in Quebec cheese

Public health officials in Quebec say a pregnant woman in the province has lost her baby, possibly because of listeriosis.

Officials are still awaiting test results to confirm whether the woman who lost her baby was infected with the bacteria, said Dr. Horatio Arruda, Quebec’s director of public health protection.

She didn’t lose the baby. It’s not like she misplaced the baby somewhere. The baby died because of listeria. Pregnant women should not eat a whole bunch of refrigerated ready-to-eat foods, but in the rush to promote raw milk cheese and food porn, those in charge forgot to remind those who are vulnerable of the risks.

Max Dubois, the owner of L’Échoppe des Fromages in St. Lambert, wants to know who will compensate him for the $40,000 worth of cheese inspectors seized and destroyed from his store on Saturday.

"Why could they not have organized a voluntary recall, as they do in France. Each cheese would have been sent away for analysis. We would have better been able to trace the spread of the bacteria. But now all the evidence has been destroyed. We’ll never know if it was spread through a distributor, or on the paper it was wrapped in, or in some other way."

Uh, France is no better. Here is the latest French cheese recall due to listeria.

Microbiologist Jacques Goulet, a cheese specialist in the food science department at Université Laval, says he, too, believes the government over-reacted.

"Listeria is present everywhere. But for most people, the risk posed by listeriosis is very low. Healthy people are rarely affected by the bacteria," he said, noting that the annual average of listeriosis cases in Quebec is about 50. (The public health department reported 63 cases in 2007 and 49 in 2006.).

Way to cite statistics. The people who got sick are real people who thought they were eating safe food.

Listeria in cheese from Toronto shop sickened pregnant woman

On Aug. 29, 2008, Ping Chiu, owner of Cheese Magic in Kensington Market, had to throw out $1,000 worth of cheese and wasn’t happy about it.

"According to the health inspector, it was listeria. Although I was told by two big cheese suppliers that it can’t be listeria."

It was listeria.

Health officials confirmed Tuesday that product sold at a popular Kensington Market cheese shop was the source of the listeria bacterium that sickened a pregnant customer.

“Cheese Magic at 182 Baldwin St. was closed down last week after a regular customer fell ill after contracting listeriosis. Health inspectors also claim they found cat and mouse droppings in a food area of the store, mould growth inside a walk-in cooler, and products stored at incorrect temperatures.

“The business has since reopened after inspectors found it had met all safety requirements when they revisited the shop.”

For some bizarre reason, Dr. Barbara Yaffe, an Associate Medical Officer of Health for Toronto Public Health, felt it necessary to downplay the risk of listeria, especially for pregnant women, rather than shout it from the rooftops.

“Keep in mind that the risk from listeriosis is low for healthy individuals. Those most at risk of developing serious illness are pregnant women, the elderly, and those with weak immune systems."

Thanks. My pregnant wife will keep that in mind. So will the pregnant woman who got sick. At some point Canadian health types will have an honest discussion with consumers at risk without worrying if they will offend industry.

Seven pregnant women among 14 sickened with listeria from Quebec cheese

In 2004, I spent a week at a cottage with a couple of my children in Eastern Ontario near Sandbanks Provincial Park on Lake Ontario. Lovely spot.

One rainy day, we toured around and ended up at a cheese shop. They produced the cheese in the factory at the back, and had a charming market outlet that seemed to trap tourists like bees on sap.

Upon entering the store, a sign declared, “HACCP – A food safety program; Hazard Analysis Critical Control Pont.” Cool. I asked one of the staff what it meant. She said she didn’t know.

But beside the HACCP proclamation was a sign that read, “Public bathroom is out of order; for your convenience there is a blue Johnny on the spot behind the building (sic).”

And here it is (left). Note the lack of handwashing facilities or sanitizer. I watched people go to the porta potty and then come into the cheese shop and do what people do at quaint cheese shops: stick their unwashed hands into shared samples of curds (that’s one of my daughters looking disgusted in the middle, right, not because of the practice, but because I have to take pictures and be a food safety geek everywhere we go).

HACCP really doesn’t mean much unless there is a culture of food safety amongst the employees and everyone involved in making a product, like cheese or deli meat.

Best as I can figure, there is a separate outbreak of listeria in Quebec, in which one has died and 14 have been sickened. Eleven different types of cheese have been recalled, and many of them appear to be raw milk cheese, which the Quebec government recently approved for sale.

While merchants are complaining about the crackdown and lost sales, what seems to have been lost in the coverage is that seven pregnant women – four confirmed, three suspected – have developed listeriosis and three gave birth prematurely.

Sylvie Thibault, a customer sampling some of the free cheeses at La Fromagerie Atwater yesterday, said she’s not worried, stating,
"I have started to double-check what cheese I buy. But I won’t stop eating the food I love because of a little scare."

Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, said,
We need to put this in perspective," adding it’s important "not to have people think every time they bite into a piece of brie, they’re risking death."

Wow. I wouldn’t want to be pregnant in Quebec. So, Quebec government (Canada has no real authority in Quebec), given the number of pregnant women who have been sickened, any efforts to highlight the risks of listeria in certain foods to at-risk populations? Or is it just a silly little scare?

The recalled products from Fromagerie Medard are: Le Rang des Iles, Le 14 Arpents, Les Petits Vieux, Le Gedeon, Le Medard, Le Couventine, Le Cabrouet and Les Cailles, all with best-before dates between July 12 and Sept. 6. Products pulled off shelves from Fromagerie Table Ronde are: Le Fleurdelyse, Le Fou de Roi and Le Rassembleu with best-before dates after July 14.

Last week, cheeses manufactured by Fromages La Chaudiere were recalled because of salmonella, blamed for the death of an elderly person in the Chaudiere Appalaches region and 90 illnesses across Quebec.

Maple Leaf identifies likely source of listeria contamination at plant

Maple Leaf Foods continues its textbook risk communication, being the first to publicly provide information about the source of the listeria contamination that has killed 19 and sickened dozens.

But is it enough?

“After careful study of the records, the physical plant and product test results received from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), internal and external experts have concluded that the most likely source was a possible collection point for bacteria located deep inside the mechanical operations of two slicing machines on lines 8 and 9. Rigorous sanitization of this equipment was completed on a daily basis in accordance with or exceeding the equipment manufacturer’s recommendations. However, upon full disassembly, areas were found where bacteria may accumulate deep inside the slicing machines and avoid the sanitization process. There were also other environmental factors, not on product contact surfaces, that may have contributed to the contamination.

"We deeply regret this incident and the impact it has had on people’s lives," said Michael McCain, President and CEO. "We have the highest food safety standards and we have worked around the clock and left no stone unturned to identify the root cause and eliminate the source of this contamination. Throughout this crisis we have done whatever it takes to place our consumers’ interests and public health first. It’s now up to us to earn back your confidence."

Concerns with slicing machines are hardly new regarding listeria. The company has taken some good steps, but can do more:

• Release the results of the 3,000 listeria swabs your company takes every year to provide some data, some meaning, to your claims that public health is your top priority?

Support some kind of point-of-sale initiative – warning labels or otherwise – to explicitly warn pregnant women and immunocomprimized Canadians that, as you say, listeria is so widespread in the environment, that vulnerable people should not eat your products, unless they are heated or some other kill step is employed.

Should deli meats be on the menu for pregnant women and at medical care facilities?

After four kids, I was familiar with the look.

“How long have you been pregnant,” I asked the thirty-something as we filled our plates during the catered lunch at a meeting in 2000 in Ottawa.

“About six weeks.”

The American media had been filled with coverage of listeria after the 1998-1999 Sara Lee Bil Mar hot dog outbreak in which 80 were sickened, 15 killed and  at least 6 pregnant women had miscarriages. Risk assessments had been conducted, people were talking about warning labels, and especially, the risks to pregnant women.

There was no such public discussion in Canada.

So as I watched the pregnant PhD load up on smoked salmon, cold cuts and soft cheese for lunch, I wondered, do I say something?

One of the biggest risks in pregnancy is protein deficiency. What if smoked salmon, cold cuts and soft cheeses were this woman’s biggest source of protein? (Turns out they were.)

Another big risk factor is stress. I didn’t want to freak her out. Besides, who the hell am I to say anything?

We sat together during lunch and chatted about babies, her aspirations and how she was feeling. Eventually I introduced the subject of listeria by talking about a risk assessment that had recently been published by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and that maybe she would be interested in looking at the results. I felt sorta goofy.

Eight years later, I don’t feel so goofy. Instead I’m frustrated at the lack of awareness, not only amongst pregnant women but amongst the elderly, other immunocompromised individuals, and the institutions and professionals that are supposed to look out for others.

Most of the now 12 confirmed and 6 suspected deaths related to Maple Leaf deli meats were consumed in places like nursing homes.

The Ontario Association of Non-Profit Homes and Services for Seniors, an umbrella group, was unaware of the recommendation that immunocompromised avoid deli meats to reduce the risk of listeria, unless they are thoroughly heated.

Association executive director Donna Rubin said,

"We’ve contacted dietitians that have long-standing experience in our homes and they’ve never been warned about listeriosis or deli meats being a huge issue or that they should be avoided.”

An Ontario Health Ministry spokesman said it has no specific policy against serving sliced meats in nursing homes, and Health Canada officials said banning certain foods from seniors homes is not in its jurisdiction. Health Canada has never recommended health facilities stop serving deli meats, noting that hospitals are a provincial responsibility.

In Calgary, two nursing home operators, Carewest and Bethany Care Society, confirmed some of their facilities serve cold meats.

Janice Kennedy, a Bethany spokeswoman, said,

"If public health says not to serve cold cuts to seniors, then we wouldn’t. We’re still meeting requirements."

It all sounds bureaucratic to me, as the death toll increases.

And the pregnant woman? When I saw her at another meeting a couple of months later, she thanked me for providing her with information about listeria and risky foods for pregnant mothers.

Setting Boundaries: Pets and your newborn baby

My ex mother-in-law once told me that if I had a baby I would have to get rid of my cats. I replied, “No cats, no baby.” My step-brother’s cats mysteriously disappeared once his firstborn was old enough to crawl. Doug and I have two cats and two dogs and no intention of giving them up or sending them outdoors once the baby arrives. Sure, there’s dog hair all over the floors and it’s going to be a hassle learning to manage new and old responsibilities – and much more difficult to keep pet hair out of the baby’s mouth once she’s mobile. But we committed to the pets long ago and have been working on teaching them their order in the home.

The Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, recommends that the dogs not even be allowed near the baby’s belongings at first to teach them that Baby is Alpha. Let them sniff at a distance until they know their place. When the dogs go for a walk, it should be behind the stroller, and they shouldn’t get unsupervised visitation, if they are allowed at all, in the baby’s room. It’s all about setting boundaries.

The Worms and Germs Blog by Doug’s ex-hockey buddy Scott Weese (he’s still a buddy but no hockey for Doug in Manhattan) recommends in “Old pet, new baby…new problems?” that we visit our veterinarian and the humane society to get advice on introducing the dogs and cats to the baby. Scott provides relevant downloadable pamphlets from the Calgary Humane Society in his blog post.
We want all four pets and the three of us to survive the transition without nips, scratches, or territory marking. We get enough of that from our friends and colleagues.

Baby gets salmonella from snake

A three-month-old U.K. baby contracted salmonella from her family’s pet snake.

Amanda Vry found out from research on the Internet that her daughter Gabriella could have contracted Salmonella from reptiles and is now looking for a new home for Reg, a Colombian Rainbow Boa.

Reg was bought as a present for her son’s ninth birthday and the family carried out research on keeping reptiles beforehand as Ms Vry was heavily pregnant at the time.

Apparently they didn’t use the Salmonella search term, and it’s unlikely most purveyors of reptilian pets talk about the Salmonella issue.

Ms Vry told BBC News,

"When they said it was salmonella I just did not know how she could have caught it. I went to the hospital’s information centre and typed in ‘salmonella’ and it said it can be caught quite easily from reptiles. We were all shocked after we had carried out the research before. If I had been given this information before we bought it, we would never have bought it and my daughter would never have been ill and my family would not have gone through this."

As Samuel L. would say, "Get those mother***ing snakes away from those mother***ing babies."