Canadian listeriosis report released: tough questions unresolved

Beginning in Aug. 2008, an outbreak of listeriosis linked to Maple Leaf deli meats was identified in Canada; 22 people would eventually die and at least 53 sickened.

In addition to the already available myriad of reports and testimonials comes the 181-page final report of Sheila Weatherill (right, exactly as shown) who was appointed directly by the Canadian Prime Minister.

The Investigation identified four broad categories where improvements need to be made. There must be:

–  more focus on food safety among senior officials in both the public and private sectors;

–  better preparedness for dealing with a serious foodborne illness with more advance planning for an emergency response;

–  a greater sense of urgency if another foodborne emergency occurs; and,

–  clearer communications with the Canadian public about listeriosis and
other foodborne illnesses, especially at risk populations and health professionals.


After in-depth analysis and advice from food safety and public health experts, the Weatherill made 57 recommendations for improvements to Canada’s food safety system. The recommendations address:

–  the safety culture of food processing companies;
–  the design of food processing equipment;
–  government rules and requirements for food safety;
–  the need for food service providers to adopt food safety practices aimed at vulnerable populations;
–  government’s capacity to manage national foodborne illness emergencies.


Weatherill had a five-person advisory committee of food safety types including Bruce Tompkin, Mansel Griffiths and Michael Doyle. The full report is included below, but is painfully slow to scroll through, so these comments are based on a cursory reading; more details to follow. I did however find that Weatherill recommended precautionary labeling – warning labels – for vulnerable populations like pregnant women and old people. That’s a start.

Who knew what when?
The report presents a timeline of the listeria outbreak, but offers little in the way of analysis. In the past the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has placed import holds on fresh produce based on epidemiological and test results conducted in the U.S. But in the listeria outbreak of 2008 (if that’s what it’s going to be called) somehow, epidemiology and positive test results from an opened package of Maple Leaf deli meat weren’t sufficient to trigger a public health warning; CFIA argued the dead-or-dying person could have contaminated the unopened package of deli-meat, so they waited until the same DNA fingerprint was found in an unopened package, another three days of inaction. So why the different standards of proof for foreign and domestic foods? What exactly is CFIA’s policy on going public? CFIA could just publish something, rather than risk a full public inquiry to get answers; CFIA bureaucrats could just be accountable to the folks that pay their salaries.

The report also talks about the need to educate Canadians about listeria and food safety. I prefer inform to the indoctrination of education, but don’t let government types do it. David Butler-Jones (below, left), Canada’s chief medical officer of health, told Canadians at the height of the listeria outbreak,

“There are the usual things we should always be doing, like washing hands, storing and cooking food properly, washing fruits and vegetables well, and avoiding unpasteurized milk and milk products…”

No idea what this has to do with listeria and ready-to-eat foods.

Also, why long-term care facilities were feeding cold-cuts to a vulnerable population is baffling – unless food safety really isn’t taken seriously by all kinds of groups (gasp).

Finally, contrary to the complete bullshit statements of various politicians and bureaucrats in the early days of the outbreak, the system did not work.

Robert Clarke, the assistant deputy minister of the Public Health Agency of Canada, said Aug. 22, 2008, that the government’s actions in this case were quite rapid and an illustration of success.??????

“I’m glad we got hold of it early and now we’ll take serious steps working with the feds to put it behind us."??????

It was a disaster I’m sure you’d want to put in the past.

The issues raised are not going anywhere. And Maple Leaf, why wait for more government reports? Put warning labels on your products, make listeria test results public, and market your food safety efforts directly to consumers.

Canada’s public health silliness

Dr. David Butler-Jones (right, exactly as shown), the chief public health thingy for Canada who hasn’t been heard from since his embarrassing statements about how listeria in deli meats that killed 20 Canadians last fall was due to poor handwashing , has apparently spent the past 7 months devising a game for school kids.

Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, today launched an educational program designed to help students learn about food borne illnesses, how they’re caused and how to prevent the risk of infection.

It’s foodborne, not food borne. Butler-Jones insists repeatedly the bulk of foodborne illness happens at home, and says the game is innovative but provides no assessment by the targert audience.

“Creating healthy habits and practicing safe food handling starts at an early age. These students are learning an important lesson about the causes of food contamination and how to protect themselves and their families against infectious disease. This initiative shows how collaboration between the federal and provincial governments, health experts and educators can lead to the creation of innovative public health tools and resources that contribute to better health for Canadians and for our communities.”

This initiative shows nothing except how tax dollars can be wasted.

Oh, and Health Canada came out today with so-called fact sheets on how to safely handle fresh produce, and emphasize repeatedly that “fresh fruits and vegetables do not naturally contain microorganisms … that can make you sick.”

No idea where that statement came from. Other than pressure from the fresh fruit and vegetable growers in Canada. That’s how government and public pronouncements roll north of the 49th parallel.