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Company, government faulted in listeria deaths

Lessons were learned at extraordinary cost and there is no guarantee that listeriosis will not return to Maple Leaf Foods or any other Canadian processor, the company's CEO said in a statement that was full of promises to do better.

Michael McCain was responding to a report commissioned by the federal government into the deadly listeriosis outbreak at the Maple Leaf plant in Toronto last summer.

"This report is a painful reminder of the factors that culminated in the tragedy of last year," Mr. McCain said yesterday at a news conference. "We thought at the time that we had a strong food safety program and we did not. Had we known then what we know now, we may have saved 22 lives."

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Maple Leaf's food safety regime is significantly better than it was a year ago when bacteria in a slicing machine found their way into packaged cold cuts, Mr. McCain said. But "in the case of food-borne pathogens, the reality is there is no absolute guarantees, not by Maple Leaf, not by anybody in the world."

Maple Leaf Foods has paid $27-million to the victims and families of people made sick by the outbreak. Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said yesterday the government would not be offering any additional compensation for its part in the tragedy.

Sheila Weatherill, the former head of Edmonton's health system, wrote in her report that the tragedy was the result of a lack of attention to food safety by senior management in both the public and private sector.

Her report said no level of government was prepared for the emergency; a sense of urgency was absent from the start; and communications with the public were inadequate. There was a lack of understanding about which government department was responsible. And it took close to three weeks before senior executives in all key organizations became fully engaged in the mounting crisis.

Ms. Weatherill did not make findings of criminal or civil liability. Nor did she single out any action, or any individual government agency or company, as being especially culpable.

But "the investigation has made clear that much more could have been done to prevent this from happening in the first place," she said, adding that the mistakes were far more obvious in hindsight. "Much more must be done to make sure it doesn't happen again."

While many of the problems that led to the listeriosis outbreak have been remedied, Ms. Weatherill offered 57 recommendations to improve food safety.

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Chief among them is that senior management in both public and private domains turn their full attention to the issue.

The employees at the Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto, where the outbreak originated, were not required to report, nor did they volunteer, information about the infection that had been detected as early as March, 2007 - more than a year before the disease claimed its first victim. That has to change, Ms. Weatherill said.

Inspectors at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, meanwhile, were stressed by the sheer number of plants they were required to watch over.

After four months of looking into the tragedy, Ms. Weatherill said she was unable to determine just how many inspectors there are and how many are needed to do the job properly. She recommended that an external auditor be called in to do a count.

Mr. Ritz, who has been his government's chief spokesman on the issue, said it was difficult to count inspectors because they are not a static group.

"There's X amount of people doing this today," he said. "By later in the day or by tomorrow, that could change as their, as their tasks move on."

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Bob Kingston, the president of the Agricultural Union of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the union that represents the inspectors, said the minister's explanation doesn't make any sense. His group was able to quite quickly put together a fairly accurate tally of the number of people doing the job, Mr. Kingston said. (The PSAC says there were 200 specifically responsible for processed meat.)

Mr. Kingston said the lack of numbers "is a consequence of misleading or misrepresentation from CFIA, from the minister."

Ms. Weatherill said the Public Health Agency of Canada - not the Agriculture Minister - should have been the leading voice on the issue because Canadians want to hear from health officials during a health crisis.

Asked whether she believes sliced meat products to be safe for Canadian consumers, she said yes.

But listeriosis is one of the most dangerous and pervasive food-borne illnesses, she said. "It's in your refrigerators, it's in your kitchens. And it's sometimes in the food we eat."

Mr. McCain that Ms. Weatherill's report is tough on his company.

"And it ought to be," he said. "We don't protest our innocence. We accept our responsibility. However, no report, no matter how thorough, can match the self-criticism and remorse we have felt as a result of this tragedy."

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Problems and fixes

A report into last summer's listeriosis outbreak has found a number of problems behind the crisis that claimed 22 lives, including a weak response by the federal government. Among the findings:

Federal meat inspectors assigned to the Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto, where the outbreak started, were "stressed" over having to oversee several other meat-processing plants.

Government officials were also slow off the mark in responding to the outbreak after it started last July.

The team that assesses health risks within Health Canada was short staffed over the summer, "leaving gaps in coverage during the response to the emergency."

The federal government was slow to communicate with the public and didn't keep up those communications long enough.

There wasn't a single point person to deliver the government's message, leading to "a fragmented approach and seemingly inconsistent message."

The report makes 57 recommendations to help prevent another outbreak.

Canada's chief public health officer should be given a greater role during outbreaks of food-borne illnesses.

Meat companies should be required to tip the federal government to any suspected health threats.

Plants that routinely test positive for bacteria or represent a higher risk should be tested more frequently than others.

Manufacturers should design easy-to-clean meat-processing equipment that limits the spread of bacteria.

The Canadian Press

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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