Listeria outbreak rocketed Canada's food safety system to top of mind in 2008

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TORONTO The deadly, nationwide outbreak of a previously anonymous bacterium has pushed Listeria and food safety to the forefront of the public consciousness, but experts warn that people are mistaken if they think avoiding Maple Leaf cold cuts amounts to safe eating in 2009.

Canadians can expect food-borne illness outbreak levels to hold steady, or even increase, in the absence of wholesale changes in how such events are tracked and managed, said Rick Holley, a food science professor at the University of Manitoba.

"The organisms that are going to be involved in causing food-borne illnesses may change, but we have done (very little) to reduce the frequency with which food-borne illness occurs in Canada," Holley said.

About 40 per cent of the food produced in Canada is manufactured under federal regulations, while much of the remainder is subject to provincial guidelines.

That's symptomatic of the multi-jurisdictional, sometimes unco-ordinated, nature of food safety in Canada, said Holley.

"If someone says to me, 'I'm not going to buy any more Maple Leaf meat because it's very risky, they don't know what they're doing, I'm going to buy locally,' Well, think again," he said.

"The local guy doesn't have to deal with the federal regulations."

If there was a government funded, central database for information on food-borne illness, food scientists would be able to identify risks then manage them, Holley said.

"If we carry on the way that we are right now, nothing, believe me, is going to change in terms of the frequencies with which we see food-borne illness in Canada, except that it's going to increase as the population increases."

Brian Evans, executive vice-president and chief veterinary officer of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, said the federal agency is "fully committed" to building such a database.

"At the end of the day... prevention is our best effort and our most important priority," Evans said.

"At the same time we do realize the limits, that no food-safety system will ever be perfect and will ever be able to eliminate all risk from the food supply."

In August, Maple Leaf Foods (TSX:MFI) began a recall of ready-to-eat meat products amid a nationwide Listeria outbreak. Twenty people died in the outbreak, which was linked to a Maple Leaf facility in Toronto.

Listeria, which had been little known outside food safety circles, became a household word and many were shocked to learn - via repeated messaging from both food inspection officials and Maple Leaf CEO and president Michael McCain - that it's everywhere.

It's in the soil, on produce, and likely on kitchen countertops in millions of homes. Proper cleaning and cooking protocols must be followed to reduce the threat of illness.

"Food safety became a very much front-of-mind issue in 2008, not necessarily for the right reasons, but nevertheless, I think that's a positive overall," Evans said. "I think it is important that people have an understanding."

People are more familiar with food-borne outbreaks of E. coli or salmonella because their incidence of causing illness in people is higher than Listeria, Evans said. With that bacteria, only the subspecies Listeria monocytogenes causes human illness, and then only in the elderly, immuno-compromised and pregnant women.

The public education efforts of McCain and Evans appear to be working, at least for Maple Leaf.

Company data shows consumer confidence in early December was at 91 per cent - up from 64 per cent in the immediate aftermath of the recall.

"(It) was certainly a game-changing year for food safety in this country in many ways," McCain said.

In September, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced an investigation into the listeriosis outbreak. Both McCain and the union representing CFIA inspectors would like to see that happen.

"We would certainly, very actively and assertively, encourage the government to get on with the investigation," McCain said.

The Prime Minister's Office did not respond to questions about the investigation.

Maple Leaf has been scrubbing its image clean, implementing intense sanitization and testing protocols, but some say the company was never the problem.

The real risk lies in a persistent lack of resources that "handcuff" CFIA employees, says the president of the Agriculture Union at the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

"They're making all the right moves in terms of shoring up the program deficiencies, (but) they don't have the resources to actually make it happen," said Bob Kingston.

"Now it's in the government's court. CFIA is trying to make the appropriate changes, but they'll simply need people to do it.

"If the government won't come through then we could be in a worse situation than we were before."

The CFIA may be facing challenges, but there have been no cuts to the budget as a result of the economic downturn, Evans said.

From the time the Maple Leaf recall began making headlines, Kingston has waged a campaign against a government move toward greater industry self-regulation.

Kingston said inspectors drown in paperwork and can't keep a proper eye on the plant floor.

"I think it allowed for what happened at Maple Leaf to go on as long as it did without anybody knowing about it," he said.



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