Listeria “discussion” no cover-up: Maple Leaf

Maple Leaf Foods has moved to scotch what it sees as “any inference” that it would have tried to keep information about last summer’s listeria outbreak from the public.

The meat processing firm on Wednesday responded to a report by the Canadian Press news agency, which quoted handwritten notes from a July 24, 2008 meeting between Maple Leaf and Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) officials.

According to the story Wednesday by CP — citing the meeting notes it obtained through an Access to Information Act request — CFIA and Maple Leaf officials did discuss “food safety in relation to listeria.”

This, after officials with both companies had previously “denied that the subject of listeria came up at the meeting,” CP wrote.

The meeting in question, CP said, was held about two weeks before the strain of listeria later found to be at least partly responsible for 20 deaths in Canada was confirmed to be linked to a Maple Leaf meat processing plant in Toronto.

Any further information was blanked out in the notes released by the CFIA as per Access to Information, CP wrote.

“General discussion”

Maple Leaf retorted on Wednesday that the handwritten notes cited in the CP story reflect only “a general discussion of microbial pathogens with the CFIA, including listeria.”

Listeria was not discussed in the context of any food safety issue, the company said, but rather in the context of U.S. trade rules during a “routine and ongoing dialogue” with CFIA.

“At the time the meeting occurred on July 24, no one at Maple Leaf Foods or the CFIA had any reason to believe there was a health issue involving

listeria related to Maple Leaf product,” the company said Wednesday.

As such, any suggestion that the company and CFIA officials “discussed food safety in relation to listeria” before last summer’s outbreak is “misleading and irresponsible in the context of on-the-record statements from the parties involved in the discussion,” Maple Leaf said.

CP reported Wednesday that both CFIA and Maple Leaf “now say they at first denied listeria came up at the July meeting, because it was not mentioned in the context of Canada’s outbreak, which at that date had yet to be confirmed by lab tests.”

Maple Leaf has previously reported costs in the tens of millions related to last summer’s recall of packaged meats from Toronto’s Bartor Road plant No. 97B.

The company’s major product recall crossed over into other food brands using product from the facility. Facility 97B, the Toronto plant tied to the outbreak, was shut down Aug. 20 but has since resumed production.

“Strongest exception”

“While we welcome open discussion of the outbreak in any and all reviews to ensure appropriate lessons are drawn from this tragedy, we take the strongest possible exception to any inference that we withheld information from the public,” Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain said in the company’s statement Wednesday.

Maple Leaf Foods said it “acted swiftly to recall products, shut plants, to protect Canadians as soon as tests linked listeria to our products and the outbreak. To suggest otherwise is both unfortunate and unacceptable.”

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