Canadian cheese recall justified after listeria outbreak but inspection process criticised

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By Rory Harrington, 05-Jun-2009

A Canadian regional government acted correctly in launching a mass recall of cheese during a listeria outbreak last year but has faced stinging criticisms over its food inspection regime.

Provincial ombudsman Raymonde Saint-Germain delivered her verdict this week following incidents of cheese contamination in Quebec in the summer of 2008 that sickened 30 and were linked to two deaths.

Recall justified

The report found that the province’s agriculture, food and fisheries ministry (MAPAQ) was right in recalling and destroying all cheese products by two processors at the centre of the food scare, as well as all other products that had come into contact with them at over 300 retail outlets.

Following a procedure of taking representative samples would have meant carrying out some 4,500 tests simultaneously which, the ombudsman said, would have presented huge logistical challenges. A fast response was necessary and therefore the action taken was justified she concluded.

"There was cross-contamination between different cheeses, and also between cheeses and other food products. So, there was no choice. They had to recall and massively destroy the cheeses recalled," said Saint-Germain.

But she noted the crisis had exposed deficiencies in Quebec’s food safety procedures, highlighting a laxness in the monitoring regime for processing plants and retailers. In one case, a cheese producer hadn't been visited by provincial inspectors for three years. Inspections of retail premises were faulted for being carried out on a case-by-case basis, "varying from one business to the other", she added.

MAPAQ's communication strategy was also criticised for failing to fully inform the public in a convincing manner about the basis for the measures taken in seizing and destroying thousands of kilogrammes of cheese.

In total, the official outlined 12 recommendations to tighten up the system. A statement released later by Quebec’s Agriculture Minister, Laurent Lessard, said many of these had already been implemented.


Saint-Germain also recommended that some cheese processors receive compensation on the basis they were named and faced financial losses, despite no evidence of contamination at their facilities.

She also advocated financial support for cheese makers to upgrade their plants to meet new regulations – particularly artisanal producers.



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