'Maple Leaf was responsible for the loss of 21 lives'

Source of Article: http://www.thestar.com/News/GTA/article/617946

 

CEO Michael McCain says company not rigorous enough analyzing listeria test results

Apr 14, 2009 04:30 AM


STAFF REPORTER

If Michael McCain had known last year what he knows today about the deadly listeria bacteria, 21 lives could have been saved, the president and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods said yesterday.

"It's blindingly clear that Maple Leaf was responsible for the loss of 21 lives," McCain told a meeting of the Star's editorial board. "I felt that personally."

While Maple Leaf conducted its own internal listeria tests prior to the outbreak, McCain said the company wasn't rigorous enough about analyzing the results.

"We didn't have a sense of what was high," he said. "We weren't asking the government for more rigorous standards. We should have been."

The Maple Leaf outbreak, traced to cold cuts produced in the company's Bartor Rd. plant last August, triggered a national scare and a public-relations nightmare for one of Canada's oldest and most identifiable food companies.

With two separate federal investigations into the outbreak underway, McCain is calling for tougher food regulations in Canada and coming clean about an industry-wide lack of scrutiny around the deadly pathogen.

The listeria outbreak was caused, in part, by a "failure of expectations" in Canadian food safety regulations that historically had no requirement for listeria testing, he said.

Data collected at Maple Leaf's Bartor Rd. plant in 2008 prior to the outbreak indicated 4.1 per cent of samples were positive, a figure not previously released to the public. Those findings were within company protocols in place at the time, he said.

"However, we were not as good as we thought we were then, and we now know that this positive sample rate would be higher than compared to our current practices and the rigour we now have in place ... We wish we knew then what we know today."

By the time McCain was warned about the test results, people were already dying. "I wish we had known earlier. But we didn't."

Since the outbreak, the company has doubled its testing and increased analysis of the results, he said. It also now quarantines any food that produces positive tests until further testing can be done.

The company's new quarantining protocol in which suspect meat is blocked from shipment until it is proven to be safe already had an embarrassing failure in February when 26,000 packages of quarantined hot dogs were accidentally sent to distributors and stores.

The federal government has also imposed new listeria testing rules on the industry since the Maple Leaf outbreak.

As of April 1, companies and Canadian Food Inspection inspectors must conduct occasional tests on meat before it is shipped to market and all positive tests must be reported. McCain calls the new measure a meaningful step forward.

But he is calling for further government reforms including greater transparency around food-borne illness trends and enforcement activities.

As it stands, detailed inspection results from Canadian meat plants cannot be obtained under the federal access to information act. Such records, along with an array of other food-borne illness information, are widely available in the U.S.

While the outbreak has been damaging for Maple Leaf, including a $27 million lawsuit it settled with victims in December, sales have largely rebounded, McCain said.

Next Monday, McCain is scheduled to appear before the parliamentary agriculture committee that recently launched a public investigation into the outbreak and, more broadly, the country's food safety system.

A separate probe, ordered by the Prime Minister's Office, is being led by Sheila Weatherill, former president and CEO of Edmonton's Capital Health Region. Weatherill, who will not hold public hearings and has no authority to call witnesses, is expected to issue her report July 20.

 

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