Manufacturer of Maple Leaf Foods' meat slicers says its machines are safe

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TORONTO Maple Leaf Foods (TSX:MFI) believes the "most likely" explanation for deadly Listeria contamination in some of its products was an accumulation of bacteria deep within its meat slicing equipment, but the machine's manufacturer insists its product was not to blame.

There are nearly 300 Formax S-180 meat slicing machines installed at processing plants around the world and an estimated 2.3 billion kilograms of sliced meat have been produced over the last 13 years without incident, said Brian Sandberg, a spokesman for Illinois-based Formax, Inc.

"There has never been a serious food safety issue associated with any of the S-180 slicers - including the machines at the Maple Leaf facility, which have been in production for more than 11 years," Sandberg said in an emailed statement.

At a news conference on Friday, Maple Leaf Foods CEO Michael McCain released the findings of a company investigation into the listeriosis outbreak that has caused 14 deaths.

It wasn't until two meat slicers - which measure roughly 3.5 metres in length and three metres in height - were completely disassembled that areas were found deep within the machine where the Listeria bacterium may have accumulated and "avoided our rigorous sanitization procedures," McCain said.

The company had previously followed and went beyond Formax's sanitization instructions - which included cleaning the equipment on a daily, weekly and monthly basis - but dismantling the machine was not regularly done because it was not recommended to do so and was unviable as a "very significant mechanical process," he added.

"Certainly the disassembly that took place here would be outside the scope of anybody's normal, routine consideration for sanitization," McCain said.

Formax had not previously heard of any issues related to bacteria accumulation within the machine and will conduct a review as a precaution, Sandberg said.

But the company still insisted its product is safe if used properly.

"Formax technical experts are reviewing our S-180 equipment and operating manuals to confirm that all instructions are clear and effective for the operation, maintenance and sanitation of these machines," he said.

"In addition, we are reminding all of our customers to follow our operating manual and service bulletin instructions on proper operation, maintenance and sanitation procedures. If a customer discovers that any sanitation procedure has not been followed, additional sterilization steps should be taken."

Maple Leaf will now disassemble its 14 Formax S-180 meat slicers on a weekly basis for cleaning, although the equipment may have to be replaced if that process is found to be too impractical, McCain said.

But he also said the results of the company's investigation are not definitive, since the pervasiveness of Listeria "makes an absolute determination (of the outbreak) impossible."

Other contributing factors may include the location of a service elevator, floor drain and bins - although the product likely did not come into contact with those surfaces.

The plant has remained closed since Aug. 20 and will not open until a comprehensive investigation has concluded, a "deep sanitization" of the plant has been completed, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is satisfied no safety issues are outstanding, the company said.

A CFIA investigation is still ongoing. The agency did not respond to questions about any potential safety concerns associated with the Formax S-180.

In addition to the 13 deaths connected to the outbreak, another six deaths are under investigation.

In all, 38 cases of listeriosis have been confirmed and 22 more are suspected.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has pledged to conduct a "broad" independent investigation into the listeriosis outbreak.

Sandberg said another two companies in Canada use the Formax S-180 although he would not disclose which ones.


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