090129 Listeria Found In Maple Leaf Deli Meat

January 25, 2009

(Toronto Star) -- Meat from a Maple Leaf Foods-owned plant has produced positive listeria tests, now under investigation by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Cappola Food Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of the food processing giant, has a team of CFIA inspectors on-site after test-result data showed positives for the potentially deadly pathogen.

Tainted meat tested within the past month has been destroyed and a CFIA "listeria review team" arrived at the plant yesterday to help determine what caused the problem, an agency spokesperson said.

Maple Leaf Foods president Michael McCain said last fall listeria is everywhere in the environment and positive test findings in meat plants are common.

There is no evidence anyone was sickened by the product.

As of yesterday, the CFIA had issued no warnings or recalls to the public about Cappola, which produces deli meat in its Toronto plant for the Canadian and U.S. markets.

"There are positive tests results," said Linda Smith, a Maple Leaf spokesperson. "We have the most stringent protocol now, so of course we're getting positive tests. "We have created a huge amount of data and have shared that data with the CFIA."

Paul Mayers, associate vice-president of programs with the CFIA, confirmed the agency has sent additional inspectors to the Cappola plant to investigate the positive listeria findings.

"We have added some staff ... in terms of review," said Mayers, who would not confirm the extent of contamination. "We investigate any positive results and work with the company. ... All of the products tested positive were destroyed."

He acknowledged, however, that not all meat products undergo testing before leaving meat plants.

Maple Leaf is still recovering from last summer's listeriosis outbreak that killed at least 20 people and triggered the largest meat recall in Canadian history.

Company officials said in the aftermath of the tragedy that listeria monitoring would be increased.

Cappola has had other food safety problems in recent years. U.S. officials turned back meat from the company in 2007 after it proved positive for listeria in a random test.

"The product never left our control, so there was no recall," Maple Leaf spokesperson Smith said.

Doug Powell, a food safety expert at Kansas State University, said the U.S. findings speaks volumes.

"Having stuff picked up at the American border rather than in Canada doesn't speak highly of the food safety system (in Canada)."

Last year, U.S. inspectors raised concerns about the Toronto plant during a 2008 audit. As part of a series of inspections of Canadian meat plants that export to the U.S., inspectors noted three deficiencies at Cappola's plant on Lepage Court in Toronto in June 2008, audit documents show.

U.S. officials found the plant was not properly monitoring food temperatures and noted employee's work boots were coated with "residues of product from the previous day's production."

"One boot had raw meat residue in the cleats of the bottom of the boot," the report states.

In 2005, Cappola was the subject of a CFIA public warning about salami that contained wheat not declared on the French ingredients label. The company voluntarily recalled the meat. In 2002, Cappola recalled 1,062 kilograms of cacciatore sausage due to a risk of salmonella.

"It's not uncommon to have recalls" in the meat business, Smith said about that case.

This week, the federal government announced an investigation into the Maple Leaf outbreak will be led by Sheila Weatherill, former head of Edmonton's Capital Health Region. The move has come under criticism from politicians, food safety experts and inspectors for falling short of a full inquiry.

Amir Attaran, a professor of law and medicine at the University of Ottawa and an editor at the Canadian Medical Association Journal, said the latest listeria findings reinforce the need for a full public inquiry into food safety in Canada.

"When we had Walkerton, we got an inquiry. When there was tainted blood, we got an inquiry. When there was SARS, guess what? An inquiry. None of those incidents made the government of the day particularly happy or look particularly good," he said.

"The difference was the government was willing to take its medicine. Even governments, knowing they were going to take a publicity hit over those episodes thought, on the one hand we take a publicity hit, on the other hand we stop Canadians dying. And they chose let's stop Canadians dying."