Maple Leaf defends listeria test results

Intensive cleanup did its job, says CEO

Sarah Schmidt, Canwest News Service

Published: Friday, October 10, 2008


Source of Article:

It took 12 days for Maple Leaf Foods Inc. to find a meat product contaminated with listeria after undergoing the most rigorous cleanup ever conducted at any meat processing plant in Canada, but the company sought Thursday to reassure the public this is a standard finding after intensive testing.

The product was immediately quarantined and never made it to market. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has still not authorized any release of products from the Toronto plant since it reopened on Sept. 17 after shutting down for 28 days in the wake of a deadly listeriosis outbreak traced back to the plant.

"While this plant has undergone intensive sanitation, we will never, ever eliminate it," CEO Michael McCain said of the listeria bacterium.

The company has tested 5,040 product samples; of the 3,850 results received to date, four, taken Sept. 29 and 30, tested positive for listeria. Out of 841 environmental tests, Maple Leaf has obtained 671 results, of which one yielded a positive result.

In addition to spending between six and eight hours a day on sanitation, the company completely disassembles its 84 meat slicers weekly to make sure listeria does not grow deep inside the machines -- identified as the most likely source of the deadly listeriosis outbreak during the summer months.

McCain said standards at the Toronto facility are "more rigorous, more vigorous, more intensive, more investigative, more analytical than any other facility in North America."

Companies like Maple Leaf do not regularly test meat samples for listeria, and instead focus on environmental testing of equipment and other surfaces as an indicator of whether their sanitation systems are working well.

Maple Leaf Foods agreed to conduct product tests -- in this case, 60 product samples taken from each line daily -- as part of agreement with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for starting up the facility.

"It was a validation step that we agreed to, a scientific belt and suspenders," said McCain.

Paul Mayers, associate vice-president of the CFIA, said the agency has not yet determined when it will scale back its intensive oversight of production and when products will be released into the market.

McCain pointed out that some tainted deli meats from processing plants across the country are invariably shipped to distributors and retailers.

Mansel Griffiths, an expert adviser to Maple Leaf and director of Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety at the University of Guelph, agreed the test results were in line with industry standards.

He said the tiny fraction of products that tested positive -- 0.1 per cent -- is in the range that would be found in deli meats for sale in Canada, ranging from 0.1 to .03 per cent.

Griffiths also referred to a major survey conducted in the United States a few years ago, which tested 9,000 samples of deli meats for sale at grocery stores and found the contamination rate to be 0.4 per cent.

"These test results are within the limits that you would expect or are even much better than the limits that you would expect in any other meat processing plant in Canada or the U.S.," Griffiths said.

It's not for me to say the meat should be released or not, it's a decision for CFIA," he said. "Personally, I see no reason why it would not be released."

But other experts say the results point to potential gaps in the sanitation and environmental monitoring systems.

Lynn McMullen, a food microbiologist at the University of Alberta, says the results indicate the possibility that listeria is resistant to the sanitizers being used.

Recent research conducted by McMullen and her colleagues has "found that some of the listeria that come from meat processing plants can be very resistant to sanitizers. This may account for the problems that Maple Leaf is having."

While the positive results represent a tiny fraction, it's still significant, added Rick Holley, a food microbiologist specializing in food safety at the University of Manitoba.

"These meat processors are fully aware that this could happen again, and I'm just surprised it happened so rapidly," he said.

McCain proposed specific areas where the food inspection system can be strengthened.

His proposals include instituting tighter specifications for managing microbiological hazards like listeria in the plant; enhancing auditing practices to make sure the industry delivers on those high standards; establishing consistent standards across country, not the "two-tier standard of provincial and federal inspection that exists today;" and developing a common approach to sharing data with the public on food safety.




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