Canadian Prime Minister to Order Probe into Listeria OutbreakSep 5, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he was "very troubled" by the Listeria outbreak that has killed 13 people in Canada and is ordering a formal investigation into the incident. Meanwhile, the Public Health Agency of Canada reported on Wednesday that a 13th person's death has been linked to contaminated food products from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in the Toronto area.
Six additional Listeria deaths are under investigation to determine if they are linked to Maple Leaf’s Toronto plant. "I am very troubled by this," Harper said. "I know the company says they take full responsibility but I'm very troubled by this. I'm troubled as a father whose family buys and uses some of these products. I'm also troubled as the head of a government that has made substantial investments in our food safety system. When we're done with this particular outbreak and we're certain that it's clear, we will be appointing an independent investigation, an arms-length investigation, to make sure we get to the bottom, on the government and the bureaucratic side, of exactly what transpired and to make sure as we go forward we make changes to our system to make sure this kind of thing can't happen again," Harper added.
Meanwhile, Maple Leaf Foods Chief Executive, president Michael McCain, said in a news conference that his company is fully accountable for the massive listeriosis outbreak in Canada. Maple Leaf is Canada's biggest meat processor. "The buck stops right here," McCain said in a news conference. "We have excellent systems and processes in place but this week it's our best efforts that failed—not the regulators, not the Canadian food safety system," McCain said. "I emphasize this is our accountability and it's ours to fix, which we are taking on fully," he added.
Not so, according to Rick Holley, professor in the department of food science at the University of Manitoba, who says that Canada lacks adequate systems to properly detect and track food-borne illness nationwide and many health problems that may be tied to bacteria in food often go unnoticed, "We know that the food-borne illnesses that are reported are just simply the tip of the iceberg," Dr. Holley said. Canadian federal health officials estimate that there are between 11 and 13 million cases of food-borne illness in Canada annually. The number of recent, high profile recalls of spinach, carrot juice, tomatoes, and other fresh products confirm that bacterial contamination is a major problem. While Prime Minister Stephen Harper has praised the government's efforts at handling the continuing problems tied to Listeria and deli meats, Dr. Holley said there's no doubt that many other Canadians have fallen ill as the result of food-related problems that go undetected.
Canadian health officials defended their inspection system; some members of the inspectors’ union who feel it is sparse and overly dependent on industry data have criticized the system. "We have an inspector in place on a daily basis when the plant is running in order to oversee the production process, in order to validate that the controls are indeed in place," said Paul Mayers of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, noting the approach was consistent with international standards.