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Slicers likely source of listeria: Maple Leaf

Processors that produce ready-to-eat meats are being asked to take on “aggressive” cleaning of their meat slicing equipment after Maple Leaf Foods found such machines to be the likely source of a serious listeriosis contamination.

Federal and provincial health officials have been investigating an increase in cases of listeriosis infections in people where the bacteria are found to share a similar genetic fingerprint, connected to products from a Maple Leaf meat plant in Toronto.

As of Saturday, 38 cases of listeriosis in five provinces have been confirmed to be connected to the specific strain, with another 22 cases under investigation. Of those 38 people, 19 have died, with listeriosis confirmed to be the underlying or contributing cause in 13 cases.

Maple Leaf announced Friday that external and company experts have concluded the “most likely” source of contamination by Listeria monocytogenes was a possible
collection point for bacteria “deep inside the mechanical operations” of
two specific meat slicing machines.

“Rigorous sanitization of this equipment
was completed on a daily basis in accordance with or exceeding the equipment
manufacturer’s recommendations,” the company said in a release Friday.

“However, upon full disassembly, areas were
found where bacteria may accumulate deep inside the slicing machines and avoid
the sanitization process. There were also other environmental factors, not on
product contact surfaces, that may have contributed to the contamination.”

Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain said in the release that the Bartor Road plant in Toronto “will not
re-open and no products will be released until the (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) and Maple Leaf are
confident in the effectiveness of the enhanced food safety protocols in
place.”

Three products

Maple Leaf shut down the plant on Aug. 20 and recalled all 191 products made there from Jan. 1, 2008 on. The company said Friday that its testing
of recalled products shows no listeria contamination in any
products other than the three products made on the two processing lines where the slicers were used.

The slicing equipment on lines 8 and 9 at the Toronto plant has been “completely
torn down and deep cleaned, with multiple tests conducted to ensure they are cleared of any contamination,” the company said, adding that similar slicers at Maple Leaf’s other plants have also been deep-cleaned and tested and will be subject to regular cleaning and testing from now on.

CFIA on Friday asked all other federally inspected processing plants in Canada with similar slicing equipment to take apart those machines and run a “systematic and thorough aggressive cleaning and sanitation procedure upon such equipment, including all internal non-electronic parts” when the next line cleaning is scheduled.

CFIA also asked other processors to run listeria environmental sampling of contact surfaces and re-sanitize such equipment before reuse.

Federal investigation

Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Saturday announced the terms of reference for a federal investigation into the listeriosis outbreak. The investigation, he said, will:

  • look at the “events, circumstances and factors” that contributed to the outbreak;
  • review the efficiency and effectiveness of the response of federal organizations and their food safety system partners, in terms of prevention, product recalls, collaboration and communication;
  • make recommendations on what could be done to enhance both prevention of a similar outbreak occurrence in the future, and removal of contaminated product from the food supply;
  • not express any conclusion or recommendation regarding the civil or criminal liability of any person or organization; and
  • submit a report to the federal agriculture and agri-food minister on the investigation’s findings before March 15, 2009.

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