Maple Leaf Foods Takes Full Blame for Listeriosis OutbreakAug 28, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Maple Leaf Foods Chief Executive, president Michael McCain, said in a news conference that his company is fully accountable for a massive listeriosis outbreak, which has been linked to deaths of 15 people 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.
The company is facing a number of class action suits and has withdrawn all 220 or so products made at its Toronto plant as a precaution. The recall is one of Canada's largest-ever food recalls. Samples of two deli meats produced at the Toronto plant tested positive for the same strain of listeria bacteria that sickened dozens of Canadians this summer, including 15 people who have since died. Meats from the plant were shipped to nursing homes, hospitals, restaurants, and stores.
Maple Leaf runs 23 plants and McCain said he did not know when the company would reopen the Toronto plant. The plant was closed on August 20. The reopen date has been moved from Tuesday to today. Meanwhile, third-party experts were examining the plant determine the origin of the contamination, which McCain said might not be possible to determine. McCain also said the plant will not reopen until the investigation is complete.
Analysts report that Maple Leaf’s future will depend on its ability to regain consumer confidence. Meanwhile, Maple Leaf shares rose almost four percent to $8.29 Canadian on the Toronto Stock Exchange on Wednesday; however, the stocks have lost more than 20 percent of their value since the recalls began on August 17. McCain declined to provide any further details of the cost of the recall, which the company had previously put at $20 million Canadian ($19 million US). He also would not comment on whether the company lost contracts because of the outbreak.
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.
Listeria bacteria is considered pervasive and can be found at low levels in food processing plants, grocery stores, kitchens, and on people's hands, McCain noted. Processors focus on preventing listeria from being introduced into packaged foods because it is possible to test contaminated food and not find the bacteria, explained McCain who added, "It's tantamount to if you had a haystack with a needle in it. You can walk out and take 10 samples of that haystack; you likely won't find the needle. What adds value is address what caused the needle getting in there in the first place."