The bacterium, which was found in the company’s meat products, was linked to the deaths of about 20 people.
The company recalled meats and shut down its Toronto processing plant on 20 August. The meat processor subsequently sanitized the plant, which led the government to permit the company to resume food production on 17 September.
Maple Leaf identified Listeria lurking deep inside two meat-slicing machines as the most likely source of the contamination, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) requested that all federally inspected plants with similar equipment conduct a systematic and thorough cleaning procedure.
Michael McCain, CEO of Maple Leaf, said that Listeria exists in 100 per cent of all meat processing plants and it is impossible to eliminate it.
L monocytogenes is a pathogenic bacterium causing listeriosis, which is a rare but potentially lethal infection that can kill vulnerable people, such as the elderly and pregnant women, as well as those suffering from immuno-compromising diseases like cancer or HIV.
The pathogen can contaminate ready-to-eat meat and poultry during post-processing steps such as slicing, peeling and packaging.
Business Monitor International’s Canada Food and Drink Report Q4 2008 report said that the Maple Leaf incident could have “wider repercussions for the entire food and drink industry, with politicians and the media calling for a complete overhaul of Canada’s food safety regulations”.
And the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada union Canada is facing a continuing crisis with tainted foods and unsafe products, which it in part blames on a lack of resources for independent regulators and for food inspection programmes.
Michèle Demers, president of the union, said: “Listeriosis is only the tip of the iceberg of the dangers deregulation is opening up in this country.
“By eliminating rules and handing responsibility for safety to industry in sectors like transportation, food and consumer products, the federal government is playing fast and loose with Canadians health and safety.”
Call for enhanced safety
Meanwhile, McCain is urging the CFIA to bring in more robust protocols for meat inspection.
He said that Maple Leaf has now put in place enhanced food safety measures that go beyond regulatory compliance such as comprehensive sanitation protocols, more environmental sampling and precautionary quarantine measures.
The processor has also appointed a chief food safety officer, who is scheduled to start in the January 2009.
According to McCain, Maple Leaf has developed a five-point plan for food safety, including a proposal to strengthen Canada's food-inspection system that would involve:
- Instituting tighter specifications for managing microbiological hazards such as listeria in the plant;
- Enhancing auditing practices to make sure the industry delivers on those high standards; and
- Developing a common approach to sharing data with the public on food safety as a means to increase transparency.
However, media reports claim that the CFIA is in fact looking to cut jobs and cancel some training, and the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the union representing food inspectors, claimed that the food agency is understaffed and spends too much time on paper shuffling.
This echoes criticism of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a former FDA official who recently opposed the National Uniformity for Food Act at a Senate hearing claimed the FDA is under-resourced, under-staffed, and essentially incapable of overseeing potential threats to the US food supply.