Learning from Listeria tragedy

Source of Article:http://thechronicleherald.ca/Opinion/1114596.html

Maple Leaf holding itself to higher food-safety standards
Thu. Apr 2 - 6:11 AM

Since August 2008, 21 Canadians have died after eating Maple Leaf deli meats contaminated with Listeria in the worst food safety crisis in modern Canadian history.

We traced the root cause of the tragedy to our plant in Toronto. We discovered that there was a spot deep within the slicing equipment that our regular sanitization missed, permitting Listeria to grow to high levels of concentration Ė high enough to make people sick. And it ended up in deli meats that were largely distributed to nursing homes and hospitals, where a vulnerable population of Canadians ate it.

This was by far the most shocking and tragic event in the 100-year history of our company. I canít properly describe the overwhelming sense of grief and responsibility we all felt Ė I felt, personally. We apologized deeply for what happened and we vowed to develop the most comprehensive anti-Listeria program of any food company in Canada. And we did.

In the months after the August 2008 disaster, Maple Leaf made substantial changes to significantly reduce Listeria in our plants. We have improved our sanitization to prevent Listeria, doubled the amount of testing we do to ensure we find it if we have it, and strengthened our product recall procedures, should those first two lines of defence fail.

Sadly, nobody knows how to eliminate Listeria from food altogether, because it exists everywhere in the environment. There are six different kinds of Listeria. Five of them are harmless. The sixth, called Listeria monocytogenes, is destroyed if food is thoroughly cooked. Healthy children and healthy adults are almost completely immune to Listeria, even the bad kind. But itís a different story for pregnant women, infants under 30 days, and people with damaged immune systems and the elderly. If they eat food with high concentrations of Listeria monocytogenes, they can get very sick or die.

In the last few weeks we have had a few setbacks on our journey to food safety leadership that you may have heard about. A more complete update is available on our web site and blog, but let me deal with one in particular.

A few weeks ago, we detected Listeria on a piece of equipment in our Hamilton plant. This in itself wasnít bad news. With an intensive testing program, finding Listeria can be pretty common Ė the more you test for it, the more you find it. According to our new procedures, whenever we detect Listeria on a food contact surface, we hold and test the food from the line and it wonít be released until we know it is safe.

Thatís where we messed up. There was a miscommunication within our quality control staff and 26,000 packages of wieners were prematurely shipped out. So we recalled the wieners, even though we were not required to. Subsequent testing indicated that there actually was no Listeria monocytogenes found in the product, but that just isnít the point. We shipped product that our procedures said should not have been shipped and our commitment to these procedures is absolute.

Obviously, having the best Listeria testing in Canada doesnít help much if we canít manage to keep potentially contaminated product out of the food chain. We have made improvements to keep this kind of error from happening again.

Because of last Augustís tragedy, Maple Leaf now "owns" the Listeria issue. We canít forget that link, and we canít ask Canadians to forget it. We have made progress in our battle against Listeria. When we have setbacks, we will be open about them, we will address them, and move forward. We plan to achieve even more.

Doing the best job of fighting Listeria of any food company in Canada isnít enough Ė if we do it quietly. We intend to become Canadaís educator. So I have asked our food safety leaders to start designing a national Listeria education and outreach program that seeks to engage our industry, the government, our customers and consumers. We want our industry as a whole to be better. We want government regulations to be tougher and more consistent. We want transparency to improve in our industry. We want customers who have responsibility for vulnerable populations, and consumers themselves, to better understand how to reduce risk.

To make sure the 21 Canadians who were killed by Listeria in August 2008 did not die in vain, our goal is to champion better food safety performance and better food safety awareness for all Canadians. Weíre not there yet, but we are well on our way.

I ask you to watch, and to judge, as we work to achieve this goal.

Michael McCain is President and Chief Executive Officer of Maple Leaf Foods. http://blog.mapleleaf.com/



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