Victims of Maple Leaf Foods’ 2008 listeria outbreak still without compensation

Over time, actions are stronger than words.

Maple Leaf honcho Michael McCain may have won platitudes for his risk communication performance during the 2008 listeria-in-deli-meat fiasco that killed 23 and sickened 56 in Canada (not from me), but actions are the true test of words.

Walter Muller got sick from eating Maple Leaf salami in 2008. A year later he received a letter saying he would be compensated for his illness.

He’s still waiting.

"I think they’re waiting for people like me to die before they pay out," says Muller, who turns 69 next week. "There’s no reason why it should take three years to get compensated."

"We are dismayed and frustrated at how long this process has taken, given we paid $25 million to settle these claims almost three years ago," president and CEO Michael McCain said in a statement.

The company said it did everything it could to get money to victims, including contacting premiers to urge their provincial health authorities to reach a settlement.

Among the undisclosed number of claimants to the settlement money are the provincial health authorities, who want a share for their costs in treating people who contracted listeriosis.

"It’s only $750 to them but for me, it’s a big deal. I was hoping it would come in the spring, then in the summer and fall and then maybe in time for Christmas, but that doesn’t look like it will happen," says Muller, a Vancouver resident.

The court-appointed administrator of the settlement fund announced in late November that it has reached an agreement-in-principle with the health authorities on their share of the money. The fund, now estimated around $27 million, has been sitting in a trust as claimants wait for their cheques. No money can be distributed until all claimants have come forward.

For Muller, who got sick with diarrhea and stomach ailments after eating the infected meat, his $750 claim is one of the lowest-ranked. Estates of people who died from complications related to listeriosis are entitled to $120,000.

What’s it worth to barf? Not much in Canada

Chapman and I have thrown around the idea that one of the reasons Canadians seem complacent about foodborne illness – despite several high-profile devastating outbreaks – is the availability of public health care. If someone loses a kidney because of E. coli O157:H7 or a liver because of hepatitis A, the cost is borne by the system. In the U.S. those without health care coverage would be out $100,000 – at a minimum. So Canadian lawsuits are kept to a minimum, media coverage remains stagnant, and everyone goes back to sleep.

As Jim Romahn wrote in Dec. after a $27 million settlement for victims in the Maple Leaf listeria outbreak that killed 20 and sickened hundreds was announced, CEO Michael H. McCain is a wily strategist.

For $27 million, tops, he has bought freedom from a court case that could have proven highly embarrassing to Maple Leaf. The ongoing coverage could well have become the final nail in consumer confidence in Maple Leaf products. The lawyers were sure to ask who knew what and when. They were sure to ask about the degree of plant contamination as the company continued to ship products, failing to first hold them for testing and clearance.

What does that $27 million buy?

• Someone who was ill for up to 48 hours would receive $750

• Up to a week receives $3,000

•Up to two weeks receives $5,500

• Up to a month receives $8,000

• If listeriosis led to a secondary infection that didn’t cause ongoing symptoms, such as meningitis or pneumonia, the settlement is $35,000

• If listeriosis caused sustained or permanent symptoms, the settlement is $75,000 plus $750 for each day of hospitalization

• If secondary complications affected the nervous system and caused “serious and permanent impairment of physical and/or mental function,” payment is $125,000 plus $750 for each day of hospitalization. A family member who was affected psychologically could receive $10,000.

• A death would lead to a $120,000 payment to the victim’s estate. A spouse would be eligible for an additional $35,000, while children could receive $30,000, parents could receive $20,000 and siblings or grandchildren could receive $5,000. Funeral expenses up to $13,500 would also be covered.

• Anyone who “sustained psychological injuries or trauma for up to 60 days” after eating tainted meat, without any injuries, could receive up to $4,000.

• Anyone who was at particular risk, such as pregnant women and the elderly, but did not become ill could receive up to $6,000 for psychological trauma that lasted up to 60 days.

• If psychological symptoms lasted more than 60 days, compensation is set at $13,500.

• Those in the vulnerable group who experienced psychological symptoms for more than 60 days could receive $17,500.

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.