Canadian listeria coverage still sucks

Daughter Braunwynn returned to Ontario last night after a great visit.

Her super-sweet 16 is less than two weeks away, so during lunch on Sunday with Amy and Sorenne and Bob, we asked what she might be studying at university (not a fair question cause I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up).

She mentioned science, psychology, maybe journalism – she liked writing.

Amy and I sorta jumped, saying that if she wanted to write, then write, and that maybe J-school wasn’t the best place to learn writing.

I teach a journalism class on food safety reporting, but there’s not much to teach: writers write, and just like scientists, they need to ask the right questions.

Braunwynn, the 15-year-old, gets it; Canadian journalists covering Michael McCain, Maple Leaf and listeria? Not so much.

There are exceptions, like Rob Cribb at the Star, but a couple of holiday puff pieces stood out. On Jan. 4, 2009, the Canadian Press correctly noted that the Canadian government has not yet named the leader of a promised probe into the listeriosis outbreak that killed 20 people — a lag critics say discredits an already suspect process.

But then they go on to excessively quote the union dude who thinks that inspectors with beer-like listeria googles are the solution. He represents the food inspectors union. Of course he wants more inspectors. As new NC State professorial thingy Ben wrote, more inspectors is not the answer.

Then there’s the researchers. They always want more research. And new technology. Oh, and to blame consumers. Because you know, consumers are the weak link when it comes to ready-to-eat deli meats. And when the researcher making such public proclamations is an advisor to Maple Leaf, that should be disclosed. Journalism 101. I’m sure glad my previously pregnant wife didn’t rely on your expert advice.

Bert Mitchell had it right the other day when he wrote that while Michael McCain has been gathering year–end goodwill for his handling of the Maple Leaf  listeria outbreak, “it is too early for applause. Effective long term solutions have not been put in place.”

For the budding journalists, there are still basic questions to be answered, questions that have nothing to do with more research, more inspectors, a public inquiry or any other narrow special interest, but questions that may help prevent any future unnecessary deaths of 20 people and  unnecessary illness of hundreds if not thousands of people:

• who knew what when;

• why aren’t listeria test results publically available; and,

• if listeria is everywhere, why aren’t there warnings for vulnerable populations?

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.

Michael McCain whines some more

Michael McCain, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, whose products killed at least 20 people, didn’t like the coverage in the Toronto Star over the weekend – those weekends when McCain is, according to e-mails, usually at his Georgian Bay cottage.

So Mr. McCain wrote a letter to the Toronto Star that was published this morning. He says,

“Within hours of being notified by the CFIA of a positive test for listeria monocytogenes (sic – should be Listeria), products were recalled by way of a news release issued to alert consumers.”

As I’ve said before, holding yourself and your company to the CFIA standard is really going for the lowest common denominator. Many people were already dead and dying. CFIA may have a standard – and it’s impossible to know because CFIA won’t come clean on when evidence is sufficient to go public – of issuing a recall once a positive is found, As Globe and Mail reporter Andre Picard wrote on Sept. 11, 2008,
“People started dying in June, and it took until mid-August to trace the problem to the plant. On Aug. 13, when the Canadian Food Inspection Agency was in the plant looking for the source of listeria monocytogenes, Maple Leaf started warning distributors to stop shipping some meats. But nobody told the public to stop eating them.”

And once again, Mr. McCain you say that listeria is everywhere.

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

If that is so, then why don’t your products have warning labels saying, “Listeria is everywhere, don’t feed my deli meats to pregnant women and old people. They may die.”

My pregnant wife is married to someone who has a PhD in food science. So she never ate McCain’s contaminated meat. I know a few other PhDs in food science who have told me the same thing. But shouldn’t other people have access to the same information? After all, listeria is everywhere. McCain, what would you advise a pregnant daughter or daughter-in-law, now that you’ve “learned more in the past three weeks about (food safety) than I have ever learned before in my lifetime.”

McCain concludes his letter to the Star by saying,

“Referencing the company as ‘slow to respond’ is absurd. I am disappointed with the absence of frequently communicated facts from both the CFIA and Maple Leaf in the story.”

Dude, you must pay over $100K for your communications thingies. Shouldn’t they at least be able to write a grammatically correct sentence? Who or what are these “frequently communicated facts?” 

Then work on something that is actually compelling.

Maple Leaf’s McCain has the communication goods; now show us the data

Maple Leaf president Michael McCain told the media today that,

“I once again wish to express my deepest personal sympathies to those Canadians who have been affected by this tragedy. While this is the most unfortunate of events possible, I absolutely do not believe that this is a failure of the Canadian food safety system or the regulators.

“Certainly knowing that there is a desire to assign blame, I want to reiterate that the buck stops right here.

“As I’ve said before, Maple Leaf Foods is 23,000 people who live in a culture of food safety. We have an unwavering commitment to keep our food safe, and we have excellent systems and processes in place. But this week it’s our best efforts that failed, not the regulators or the Canadian food safety system.”

Good for McCain. He runs a company with world-class aspirations, so he’s not weaseling away from the spotlight.

And he unshackled the company of any political or bureaucratic commentary – which has been fairly hopeless all along.

But if McCain is going to step up, he’s also going to get some questions,

McCain says, “a comprehensive study done at the University of Regina gave Canada one of five superior ratings out of 17 top-tier OECD countries in a world review of food safety. This highlights that Listeria is a particularly challenging bacteria for the entire food industry to manage, including the United States and Europe, simply because it is pervasive."

That study was fairly challenged and has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Don’t cite shit.

And you didn’t address any of the tough issues.

Will you 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?

 Will you back 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.

Michael McCain, you’ve taken some great first steps and gone way beyond what government has done. The sooner you lose them the better; they’re deadweight and not very good hockey players. They don’t lose their jobs, and they don’t lose sleep about falling stock prices. 

Me, Ben, Amy and the rest of our team are here to help you actually implement that culture of food safety you and your folks are so fond of citing. We’ve noticed you liked the pictures of recalled products idea. We’re not just armchair quarterbacks, and we’re just an e-mail away.

15 dead in Canadian listeria outbreak; government messages turn from bizarre to banal

Michael McCain, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, when it comes to the communication and building trust aspects of what must be your listeria nightmare, stay away from government.

Shortly after the first death was announced last Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008, various politicians and bureaucrats said the surveillance system was working. Robert Clarke, the assistant deputy minister of the Public Health Agency of Canada, said Friday that the government’s actions in this case were quite rapid and an illustration of success.

I’ve been harping ever since that it’s impossible to tell from the various public statements who became sick when, and whether the system really worked or not. If you’re going to brag about how the system is working, you have to provide dates for onset of illness and deaths.

Today I got some company.

Toronto’s Globe and Mail wrote in an editorial that officials claiming surveillance success, “doth self-praise too much, too soon.

“Did the surveillance system work? No independent voice has said so yet, and it is hard to see why Mr. Clement’s or Mr. Clarke’s word should be taken at face value. The two-year-old Public Health Agency, which reports to Mr. Clement, has yet to distinguish itself for independence. And everyone – government health officials and the company involved, Maple Leaf Foods Inc. – considered it enough that the first warning of possible contamination went out to distributors, not the public. For four days, the loop was closed. Whether that was the right or the wrong approach, it does not do much for the public’s confidence in Canada’s food-safety system.”

Columnist Tom Brodbeck of the Winnipeg Sun wrote that,

“Federal Health Minister Tony Clement says the recent tainted meat outbreak that killed six people and caused at least 14 more serious illnesses is a shining example of how well Canada’s food inspection system works.

Pardon? …

“If this is what Clement calls a success story, I’d hate to see what he considers a system failure. … I don’t think six deaths and 14 serious illnesses is anything to be proud of.”

These comments about success are even more bizarre and appalling now that the confirmed and probable death toll has been raised to 15.

So this afternoon, Dr. David Butler-Jones, MD, Chief Public Health Officer (that’s a lot of capitals), who had previously lauded the success of the surveillance system,  wrote in a press release that,

“As Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, I want to update Canadians on the state of the ongoing listeriosis outbreak.”

He really seems to enjoy that title; and he then proceeded to provide less than no information.

“We are all understandably concerned whenever we hear that something as precious as the food we eat may pose a danger. Years of effort to ensure safe and secure food supplies have allowed us to be confident in what we eat. …

“While not everything is preventable, fortunately there are some simple steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of illness for ourselves and our families. 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. …

“Canadians should be confident that the Government of Canada, through the
Public Health Agency of Canada, Health Canada and the Canadian Food
Inspection Agency, is working closely with all provinces, territories, and with Maple Leaf Foods to respond to this outbreak and protect the public’s health.

“We can never be completely immune to the risk of contaminations and outbreaks, even with the best food safety system in the world. That is why we operate surveillance and other systems to identify potential outbreaks and do the detective work that helps us to find the cause and stop further problems. And what we learn from each experience helps us to improve the system further.”

As Napoleon Dynamite sorta  said, “That’s like, the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

Why should Canadians have any confidence when the public servants at all these agencies with their six-figure salaries can’t provide basic information like who got sick when? How arrogant is it to tell someone they should be confident in an alphabet soup of agencies, in the absence of any data or statements that inspire confidence?

Ben sent me a sports headline regarding the Olympics, which also fits for food safety: Canada remains happily mediocre.

That’s me and Ben, above right, not exactly as pictured.

And here’s me with a clean shirt talking to CBC News.


Should deli meats carry warning labels?

Warning labels are a lousy risk management strategy, but the outbreak of listeria in Canada which has killed at least 12 and sickened dozens has had lots of lousy aspects.  So why not?

A story that is running across Canada this morning

With pregnant women and the elderly especially at risk from Listeria, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency needs to step up efforts to alert people to the hazard — perhaps going so far as to put warning labels on deli products — said University of Guelph adjunct professor Doug Powell.

What? Guess that was some stretch at Canadian content. I’m an associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University.  If I’m adjunct at Guelph, I want access to all the money that was provided to deliver news and is instead being used as some sort of room renovation fund by a department chair I never met.

The opinion piece that ran in the Toronto Star this morning was more accurate.

Michael McCain delivered a powerful and compelling apology over the weekend as authorities confirmed Maple Leaf deli meats were the likely source of food-borne illness that has killed at least six and sickened dozens.

Outbreaks of food and water-borne illness are far too common. The World Health Organization estimates that up to 30 per cent of people in so-called developed countries will suffer each and every year. That’s a lot of sick people.

But the current listeria outbreak turns statistics into stories, and challenges a company like Maple Leaf, with world-class aspirations, to do better.

The first case of listeriosis apparently surfaced in late June. Why it took the various health authorities so long to make a link remains to be uncovered.

For now, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Health Canada and others are providing little in the way of details regarding who knew what when.

The authorities are, however, proving unjustifiably adept at praising themselves for the speed with which they responded to the outbreak.

Two months after the first case is not an early-warning system. The political barbs that have been tossed around – which provide no insight on managing listeria – are simply embarrassing given the loss of life and illness.

McCain and Maple Leaf are better than this, and can be better:

• Issue pictures of the recalled products:

Telling people to look for products that contain the stamp "Establishment (EST) 97B" puts too much of a burden on people who just wanted to go shopping, not do homework. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration realized this, and last year started including pictures on their recall notices for products deemed to be high health risks.

Pictures aren’t superficial, they are good communication. It’s difficult for even PhD-types to wade through nine pages of recalled products, and pictures can make the connection for those who don’t always know what brands they buy.

• Warn pregnant women and others at risk from listeria in deli meats:

My wife is six months pregnant and she hasn’t had deli meats or smoked salmon or other refrigerated, ready-to-eat foods for six months.

That’s because, as Michael McCain says, the bacterium listeria is fairly much everywhere, difficult to control, and grows in the refrigerator. It also causes stillbirths in pregnant women, who are about 20 times more likely to contract the bug than other adults.

The banter in Canada about government or industry taking the lead on food inspection, whether food should be produced in large or small places, is misguided at best and more likely, political opportunism.

Long before the current outbreak, the advice from the Canadian government about listeria was mushy:

"Although the risk of listeriosis associated with foods from deli counters, such as sliced packaged meat and poultry products, is relatively low, pregnant women and immunosuppressed persons may choose to avoid these foods."

The advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control is clear: Do not eat hot dogs, luncheon meats, or deli meats, unless they are reheated.

It has been documented that many pregnant women are not aware of the risks associated with consuming refrigerated, ready-to-eat foods like cold cuts.

Don’t expect the bureaucrats in the Canadian government to do anything. If Michael McCain and Maple Leaf are truly concerned with public health, they could at a minimum put warning labels on their products. Maybe near the "(EST) 97B."

• Make your listeria data public:

Maple Leaf Foods spokesperson Linda Smith told CTV Newsnet Friday, officials at the plant are "… constantly looking for it (listeria), constantly swabbing and looking for it."

Smith said the equipment at the plant is sanitized every day and officials take about 3,000 swabs per year. The plant also has a microbiologist on site.

"This plant has an excellent food safety record, excellent inspection record, excellent external auditors. We’ll never know exactly how it got here."

But you do have 3,000 samples per year. If Maple Leaf really wants to restore public confidence, release the listeria data. How many positives does the Toronto plant see in a year? Were there positives leading up to the initial Aug. 17 recall? If there were no positives, why not? What is the protocol when a positive is discovered?

Consumers can handle more, not less information about the food they eat.

Maple Leaf Foods has the unfortunate opportunity to set new standards for consumer confidence.

Douglas Powell of Brantford is an associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University.

Maple Leaf Listeria developments

The coverage of this outbreak isn’t really going away as more details came out yesterday.

Earlier in the day, Maple Leaf spokesperson Linda Smith was cited as saying that inspectors failed to detect listeria in this case, but they are constantly swabbing for the bacterium. "Did we find it? Absolutely not. We did not find that listeria," she said. "Did we let people down? Yes. But we were doing the right things."

On CBC’s National tonight (clip below), Smith was quoted as saying "We would occasionally find a listeria positive swab, at which case we sanitize that complete area and swab again."

So which is it?

In legal news, and the lead story on Canada AM this morning, is that class action lawsuits in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan have been launched according to Tony Merchant, of the Merchant Law Group LLP, who says residents in each of the provinces have contacted his firm about representation.

As I wrote this post, I saw Michael McCain’s Maple Leaf apology on TV three times.

12 dead, 26 confirmed ill, 29 more suspected in Canadian listeria outbreak

I was talking with my mom yesterday. Her and dad live in Brantford, Ontario, Canada, and she asked if I was busy with the listeria outbreak. I asked her if she was concerned at all, and she says she doesn’t buy deli meat – her, and more often, dad, will cook a roast or a ham and eat leftovers.

At that point, I realized I had become my parents. I do buy the occasional shaved turkey breast, and lots of smoked salmon, but it’s been nothing but roasts and birds fillets for the past six months of Amy’s pregnancy.

Others in Canada aren’t so sure what to do.

Ken Barnett of Ajax, Ontario, said that in the future, he and his wife are sticking to salads and salmon for lunch. I wonder if he knows smoked salmon is another one of those refrigerated, ready-to-eat foods that can harbor listeria.

“We’ve sort of made a decision not to buy any cold meats for the time being.”

Meanwhile, health types announced this afternoon that the number of dead in the Maple Leaf listeria outbreak has risen to six confirmed and six more suspected deaths, along with 26 confirmed illnesses and another 29 suspected ill.

Meat types this afternoon said the Canadian meat supply was among the safest in the world, and that,

“Canadian consumers should be assured that Canada’s meat supply is recognized amongst the safest in the world.”

The release went on to describe all the money that has been invested in the meat system and that consumers needed to do their part. I’m sure none of this was reassuring to the dead and sick, especially since these are ready-to-eat products.

Medical types on Vancouver Island received a letter warning them to be on the lookout for patients with symptoms of listeria. Shouldn’t this have happened two months ago when the first cases were reported?

And an academic type, my buddy Rick Holley at the University of Manitoba, said he wasn’t surprised to learn of the listeria outbreak since Canada’s tracking of food-related illnesses is inadequate, and that,

"I am constantly troubled by the lack of surveillance information on foodborne and waterborne illnesses in Canada.”


Should cats be allowed to control rats in N.Y. deli’s?

Across New York City, the owners of delis and bodegas say, in this morning’s N.Y. Times, they cannot do without their cats, tireless and enthusiastic hunters of unwanted vermin, that typically do a far better job than exterminators and poisons.

Urszula Jawor, 49, the manager of a corner store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, said of her cat that,

“In the morning she is lazy, it is her nap time. But in the afternoon she is busy. She spends hours stalking the mice and the rats.”

The story says that to store owners, the services of cats are indispensable in a city where the rodent problem is serious enough to be documented in a still popular two-minute video clip on YouTube from late February ( of rats running amok in a KFC/Taco Bell in Greenwich Village.

Store-dwelling cats are so common that there is a Web site,, dedicated to telling their tales.

But, the story notes that the city’s health code and state law forbid animals in places where food or beverages are sold for human consumption. Fines range from $300 for a first offense to $2,000 or higher for subsequent offenses.

Robert M. Corrigan, a rodentologist and research scientist for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said,

"Any animal around food presents a food contamination threat. And so that means anything from animal pieces and parts to hair and excrement could end up in food, and that alone, of course, is a violation of the health code."

Mr. Corrigan was cited as conceding that some studies have shown that the smell of cats in an enclosed area will keep mice away, but he does not endorse cats as a form of pest control because, he explained, the bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites and nematodes carried by rats may infect humans by secondary transfer through a cat.

Still, many store owners keep cats despite the law, mainly because other options have failed and the fine for rodent feces is also $300.

José Fernández, the president of the Bodega Association of the United States, said,

"It’s hard for bodega owners because they’re not supposed to have a cat, but they’re also not supposed to have rats."