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Listeria Warning Signs Missed

Maple Leaf Foods president Michael McCain put his finger on the weak link in his company’s efforts to prevent contamination of its ready-to-eat meats during his testimony before the Commons food safety subcommittee April 20.

He said the company was properly testing its products and sanitizing its plant. What it missed was analyzing the results of hundreds of bacteria tests conducted in the Toronto plant every day to see if there were warning signs in the data.

It was a failure “to look for patterns so that we could find the bacteria that we couldn’t see inside these facilities, and end up with a different result. It was more a failure to analyze those findings for a root cause, and a failure of those protocols, than it was a failure of inspection, per se.”

Now the company applies “sophisticated investigative and pattern recognition science to analyze test results to better determine root cause,” he added.


If Maple Leaf had paid more attention to the test results as indicators of where additional sanitizing was needed, it might have spotted the buildup of listeria bacteria in one of its meat slicers that led to the outbreak that killed 20 and sickened more than 50, he said. The test results were compiled in a book that was readily available to company officials and inspectors from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

The company’s experience should tell anyone involved in a food safety program that more than visual inspections are required to have a truly effective system.

Sheila Weatherill, picked in January by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to investigate the listeria outbreak, testified before the subcommittee on April 22.

She said she has the resources “to make substantive, clear recommendations.” She has received the full co-operation of the company, CFIA, Public Health Agency and Health Canada. “All individuals who we have called have agreed to meet with us,” she said. More than one million pages of documents have been turned over to her.

“We are following the evidence wherever it takes us,” she said. “People are anxious to talk about what happened last summer and get to the bottom of what transpired.”


On the eve of the start of the subcommittee hearings, the government released reports on the lessons learned by CFIA, Health Canada, the Public Health Agency and the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. At the same time, Dr. David McKeown, medical officer of health for the City of Toronto, released his report.

None of them really explain why it took from mid-to-late July when Toronto health officials realized there was a major gastroenteritis outbreak in some of the city’s nursing homes to mid-August for CFIA to ask Maple Leaf Foods to begin recalling products from its deli meat plant in Toronto.

Nor was it clear what would become of all the recommendations in the reports, which were released without a news conference or any comment from federal cabinet ministers. Weatherill will report her findings to the government in July. The subcommittee will present its findings to Parliament in June.

The reports don’t blame Maple Leaf for the outbreak, saying it was following the federal rules although the Ontario officials suggest its plant was not in tip-top condition at the time of the outbreak.

CFIA’s recommendations included better criteria for identifying and managing a food safety incident, improved co-ordination and co-operation with provincial and municipal health officials, clear communications on recalled products and more attention to analyzing outbreaks of illness and food safety issues. Some of its proposals for expanded environmental testing in plants and reporting all listeria incidents to the agency were included in its revamped listeria-testing policy for ready-to-eat meats released in early March.


Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, said the listeria outbreak demonstrates a need to put public health officials in charge of handling disease situations through an Outbreak Co-ordinating Committee. Food laboratories must upgrade their capacity “to conduct a wider range of tests, monitor strains of bacteria and other organisms that pose a threat to public health, and educate public health units about sampling techniques.” Governments also need to track illness trends so they spot diseases faster. There must also be better communications among the different levels of government.

The Toronto report criticized CFIA for an overly cautious policy of connecting a foodborne illness to a particular source before warning the public. “The threshold for deciding to recall a food product or notify the public is an important policy issue which has been a source of ongoing discussions (among governments).” Health officials don’t wait for a precise cause-and-effect relationship before warning the public about potential health risks and the same policy should apply to unsafe foods.

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