In late August, a major
listeriosis outbreak occurred across Canada, linked to processed meat
products produced by Maple Leaf at one of its Toronto plants.
In late August, a major listeriosis outbreak occurred across Canada, linked to processed meat products produced by Maple Leaf at one of its Toronto plants.
Over 200 meat products were recalled and, at press time, 16 deaths across the country have been linked to the consumption of products from the Maple Leaf plant. It’s an unfortunate incident that has naturally raised a lot of debate over Canada’s food safety system.
At the heart of the debate is government regulation, or a perceived lack thereof. At the height of the crisis, major media outlets were reporting that the federal government planned to “deregulate” inspection, making it the primary responsibility of food manufacturers. Inspection hasn’t been “deregulated”, but it’s clear that inspectors have been bogged down by paperwork – examining test results on possible contaminates performed by the company, often days after the products have been shipped.
In my opinion, this is what raises the biggest flag. Whether or not inspectors are present on the processing plant floor at all times, the fact that food is distributed to consumers before test results are known is definitely a huge problem.
As a graduate student, I took a food safety course that required students to visit a major beef processor. I saw first-hand the safety and sanitizing procedures that take place in a processing plant, and they are stringent. However, what I remember most from that visit was my shock in discovering that sampling for potential pathogens was done as the products were being packaged – or had already been packaged – and that test results may not have been known until the product had left the building.
Even if government budgets allowed for increased inspection staff at plants, a major loophole is testing times. Why are food products, particularly processed products that have a shelf life that can span months, allowed to be on grocery store shelves when test results are unknown?
Perhaps the government should focus on more rapid methods for testing pathogens. Sick consumers should not be what prompts a major recall. Ideally, test results should indicate a problem before a contaminated product reaches store shelves.
For its part, Maple Leaf needs to be congratulated on its handling of the outbreak. When first identified as the source, Maple Leaf President and CEO Michael McCain publicly took full responsibility, saying that it was the fault of the company, took swift action to close the plant and worked with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to identify the source of listeria.
Once it was determined that the bacteria was growing deep within slicing equipment – despite being cleaned according to the manufacturers’ protocols – Maple Leaf announced it has amended its own cleaning protocols to include not just cleaning slicers, but also cleaning them once dismantled.
The listeriosis outbreak was a tough lesson for both Maple Leaf and the Canadian government. Having touted itself as having one of the best food safety systems, the Canadian government needs to take its part in ensuring that this reputation is not lost, supplying sufficient resources and education for processors.
With a federal election looming, the listeriosis outbreak has been the subject of political rhetoric – let’s
hope that promises made aren’t forgotten after Oct. 14.
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