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Meat Plant Implicated in Massive Listeria Outbreak to Reopen

Oct 22, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP At the end of August, Canada’s Maple Leaf Foods Chief Executive, president Michael McCain, announced that his company was taking full responsibility for a massive listeria outbreak in that country that led to 20 deaths.  The Maple Leaf plant in Toronto that was associated with that outbreak has been closed since August 20th.

Now, shipping of processed meats from the implicated Toronto plant will begin next week, with federal permission, following the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s report yesterday that it was satisfied that the plant had been “sufficiently sanitized to resume commercial production.”

The Maple Leaf plant was closed following a sudden increase in reports of listeria-related illnesses.  Most reports were originating from nursing homes, hospitals, and other similar type institutions, as well as restaurants and stores.  As a result, Maple Leaf issued a recall of all of the over 200 products its Toronto plant produced, costing Maple Leaf Foods in excess of $20 million.  The recall was 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 and killed 20 Canadians this summer.  Inspections revealed that the source of the listeria contamination was deep within the mechanical slicers.  Maple Leaf runs 23 plants and is Canada’s largest meat processor.

In August, McCain, said in a news conference that, "The buck stops right here.  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.”  At the time, Maple Leaf was aware it was facing a number of class action suits.  Now, according to Canadian publication, The Toronto Star, 20 families of those who died or were sickened in the massive listeria outbreak have signed on to a class action suit against Maple Leaf Foods.  Analysts report that Maple Leaf’s future will depend on its ability to regain consumer confidence.

Canadian health officials have long defended their inspection 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.  Meanwhile, some members of the inspectors’ union who feel it is sparse and overly dependent on industry data have criticized the system.

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.  Listeriosis is a type of food poisoning generated by Listeria monocytogenes and is particularly dangerous to the elderly, pregnant women, newborns, those with chronic medical conditions, people with HIV, or those undergoing chemotherapy.  Most experience mild flu-like symptoms—fever, muscle aches, nausea, or diarrhea.  In serious cases, the disease spreads to the nervous system, causing headaches, stiff neck, and convulsions.  In pregnant women, Listeriosis can result in miscarriage or stillbirth.  Listeria lives in soil, stream water, sewage, plants, and food and can easily contaminate dairy and beef products.  Because Listeria thrives in the cold, refrigerated food products provide an ideal environment for the germ.

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