Quebec Health officials fear listeriosis outbreak linked to cheese will grow

From Monday's Globe and Mail

Source of Article:  http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080908.wlisteria08/BNStory/National/home

QUEBEC AND TORONTO — Public-health officials fear the listeriosis outbreak in Quebec linked to contaminated cheese could grow by as many as nine more cases from the 15 already reported.

The poor forecast kept the food-safety issue in the spotlight as the federal election campaign began yesterday.

Quebec's Ministry of Agriculture and Food said it had traced the source of the outbreak to two Quebec cheese producers on Saturday, but added that other cheese factories could be implicated as inspectors widened their search to include all of the province's 44 makers of raw-milk products.

"This outbreak is far from over. It is not behind us yet," warned Horatio Arruda, Ministry of Health director for the protection of public health.

"Out of the 15 reported cases, one person has died. There were four pregnant women who gave birth to premature babies. Two of the babies are being treated for listeriosis."

Dr. Arruda said there was no link to the listeriosis outbreak involving contaminated meats from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto that have killed 13 people, mostly in Ontario.

The outbreaks played havoc with the Conservative Party's election campaign launch yesterday in Quebec City. The federal minister responsible for the Quebec City region, Josée Verner, called the outbreaks a crisis.

She defended Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to conduct an independent investigation to examine the circumstances that led to the Maple Leaf listeriosis outbreak.

"He finds this crisis quite disturbing and fully intends to get to the bottom of this," Ms. Verner said yesterday.

Dr. Arruda said pregnant women are particularly vulnerable, as well as the elderly and people with weakened immune systems. Of the nine other potential cases being examined in the outbreak linked to contaminated cheese, three involve pregnant women. The number of cases will likely continue to rise, he said, because of the listeria bacterium's long incubation period of up to 70 days.

"This is like a police investigation and it's been like looking for a needle in a haystack. We reported the outbreak in August and now we have finally identified two main sources of contamination. For public-safety reasons we had no choice but to order all of the cheeses offered by the 300 retailers who sold any of the recalled products to be taken off the shelves because of the danger of cross-contamination."

The recalls angered retailers who lost tens of thousands of dollars after being ordered to destroy all of their cheese products.

The Quebec government widened its recall and ordered an additional eight cheeses pulled from store shelves on Saturday, bringing to 11 the number of products recalled.

Food inspectors identified products packaged after July 12 from Fromagerie Médard located in Saint-Gédéon in the Lac-St-Jean region; and products packaged after July 14 from Les Fromagerie de la Table Ronde in Sainte-Sophie, located in the Laurentian region north of Montreal, as the sources of the listeriosis outbreak.

The cheeses go under the names Le Rang des Iles, Les 14 Arpents, Les Petits Vieux, Le Gédéon, Le Médard, Le Couvertine, Le Cabrouet, Les Cailles, Le Fleurdelyse, Le Fou du Roy and Le Rassembleu.

Inspectors have not yet determined the cause of the listeria contamination in the two cheese factories.

Meanwhile, Maple Leaf said the contamination at its processing plant in Toronto likely came from two meat-slicing machines.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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