Public safety: Listerionomics

Inside Canada's tainted meat scandal.

The recall began modestly during the dog days of summer. On Aug. 17, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) warned consumers not to make their sandwiches with Maple Leaf’s Sure Slice brand roast beef and Corned Beef due to suspected contamination with Listeria monocytogenes. Two days later, the agency informed consumers that the bacteria had also infiltrated Schneiders Bavarian Smokies, ML Sure Slice turkey breast roast and 19 other products. At that point, Richard Arsenault, the Ottawa bureaucrat who oversees meat inspection for CFIA, told the CBC that the recalls were just a statistical blip and that Canada’s meat inspection was one of the world’s best.

But by the end of the month, Maple Leaf Foods Inc. (TSX: MFI), Canada’s largest meat processor and an icon of the food establishment, entered full crisis mode. Company president Michael McCain eventually recalled nearly 200 products — everything from Ezee pizza to Bung bologna — at a cost of $20 million, although only 20 products tested positive for the pathogen. The company also closed its Bartor Road facility in Toronto and hired independent experts to perform a full forensic audit. Meanwhile, the Public Health Agency of Canada tallied 13 dead from listeriosis and scores more infected in what may well become the nation’s worst meat contamination scandal.

While politicians such as Health Minister Tony Clement sang the usual chorus line (“This is an example of where our surveillance system worked”), analysts and commentators of all stripes openly doubted the competence of Canada’s food inspection system. “If this is a success, I hope I never see a failure,” said William Leiss, one of the nation’s foremost risk analysts at the University of Ottawa. “I have no confidence in the system. There is no transparency.” Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper ordered an investigation.

The outbreak shed light on a number of disturbing issues. For starters, it exposed a secret government plan to accelerate the deregulation of the meat industry. It also unearthed troubling Health Canada and U.S. reports about the performance of CFIA. The agency, which stands on guard for food safety as well as animal and plant health, is already the subject of a $7-billion lawsuit by some 100,000 cattle farmers over the ongoing mad cow disaster. That preventable fiasco lowered beef prices, temporarily banned exports to the U.S. and put hundreds of beef producers out of business.

The outbreak of listeria, a common food pathogen, also delivered a powerful reminder about the deadly economic and public-health fallout of food-borne illness in a highly industrialized food system. Each year, bad food sickens between 11 million and 13 million Canadians and costs the economy more than $1 billion. “What’s unusual here is the scope,” says Sylvain Charlebois, a food distribution and safety expert at the University of Regina. “We are dealing with a Canadian business multinational, and all the victims are Canadian. The outbreak strikes Canadian values at their core.”

Canada’s meat-packing and processing sector is a global player and one of the nation’s most highly concentrated industries. Just two beef packers, Cargill and XL Foods, now account for most of the federally inspected slaughter capacity; just three firms — Olymel, Maple Leaf and Quality Meat Packers — account for most of the pork processing. In 2006, the industry produced $20.5 billion worth of processed meat. In 2007, it also exported $2.4 billion worth of pork and $1.2 billion worth of beef to largely U.S. markets. The industry even shipped 13,701 tonnes of horse meat abroad last year.

Maple Leaf Foods, with annual sales of nearly $6 billion, symbolizes the industry’s concentrated character. In 1995, the McCain family swallowed the more than century-old company, and in 2004, Maple Leaf gobbled up Schneiders, then Canada’s second-largest meat processor. The firm now cooks and slices up 80% of the nation’s processed meat. With facilities in Canada, the U.S. and Asia, as well as some 220 brand-name products, the multinational feeds thousands of clients from hospitals to grocery chains.

But concentrated production can also concentrate bacteria in food exported over a wide area — and create big trouble. Batches of tainted Mexican-grown jalapeño and serrano peppers precipitated 1,440 North American cases of salmonella this year, while spinach from three California counties sickened hundreds in 23 states with toxic E. coli bacteria in 2006. Nor is Maple Leaf immune from such trouble. Salmonella-rich Maple Leaf frozen chicken pies poisoned dozens of Minnesotans in 2006, while contaminated Schneiders lunch packages sickened 839 children in 1998.

It’s not exactly clear who detected the current listeria outbreak or when it first appeared. But in late June, Toronto Public Health authorities grew alarmed at the rising number of listeriosis cases in hospitals and nursing homes throughout the province. Listeria monocytogenes, a ubiquitous bug, can be found in the soil, vegetables and livestock, as well as most meat processing facilities. (A 2006 Canadian health study found that listeria bacteria levels were three times higher in retail meats at grocery stores in the Waterloo, Ont., region than on the farm.) The germ can grow while refrigerated and is even benignly carried by 10% of the population. But it can cause brain infection and blood poisoning in the elderly and the immunocompromised, including pregnant women, and comes with a frightful 30% mortality rate. Given its prevalence in retail package meats, many public health officials, including a 2005 Health Canada advisory, argue that pregnant women and the immunocompromised should avoid ready-to-eat deli meats altogether.

Although Canadian health researchers first identified listeria as a food pathogen in 1981 when tainted coleslaw killed 18 people in the Maritimes, Ottawa took listeriosis off the national notifiable disease list in 2000. The government now has no reliable incidence data.

After a federal investigation belatedly traced the current strain back to ready deli goods made at Maple Leaf’s Bartor Road facility, CEO Michael McCain put on a brave face and shouldered the blame. In spite of taking 3,000 annual swabs for listeria and other pathogens at the facility, McCain confessed there had been a “breach.” He confirmed that it’s not unusual for a meat facility to record positive listeria tests 5% to 10% of the time, and he promised to appoint a chief food safety officer. He cited a 2008 University of Regina study that gave the country an excellent rating for food safety. “I absolutely do not believe that this is a failure of the Canadian food safety system or the regulators,” said McCain.

Experts, however, disagreed. Doug Powell, a director of the International Food Safety Network at Kansas State University, questioned many of McCain’s statements on BarfBlog, an Internet site devoted to bad food news. Powell said the heavily criticized Regina study had not been peer reviewed and that McCain should not cite “shit.” He also asked the executive to release the results of the company’s listeria testing, and suggested that McCain should put warning labels on deli foods indicating that listeria “is so widespread in the environment that vulnerable people” should not eat Maple Leaf products. (Maple Leaf now considers such labelling “a topic of interest.”)

Both Canadian and U.S. authorities have also raised serious questions about the system’s competence. A 2002 Health Canada study on domestic ready-to-eat meats described a host of problems with listeria testing. It noted that “sampling procedures for Listeria monocytogenes resulted in delays between the time when non-compliant samples were detected and when follow-up samples were taken.” Targets for listeria environmental and product sampling were rarely honoured. Concluded the report: “The success of [CFIA] in meeting its objective of reducing the prevalence of Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat meat products has been limited.”

In 2005, the Office of the Inspector General Northeast Region of the U.S. Department of Agriculture found so many “serious concerns” with “pathogen reduction” and meat safety protocols that “deficiencies in the Canadian inspection system may compromise U.S. public health.” The report noted that 252 processing facilities did not receive daily inspection, and that the Canadian system failed to test ready-to-eat products for listeria. Despite protests from CFIA, Canada later implemented daily inspections and product testing for listeria to satisfy U.S. concerns. As a result, meat for domestic sale is not as thoroughly inspected. “American consumers of Canadian meat have more checks and balances in place. There is a double standard,” confirmed Bob Kingston, president of the Agriculture Union-PSAC that represents federal meat inspectors.

Recent changes to food safety have also been implicated in the outbreak. While listeriosis from tainted meat was infecting Canadians in July, the government fired CFIA biologist Luc Pomerleau for sharing a secret government brief with his union. The seven-page document proposed to shift “full-time CFIA meat inspection presence to an oversight role allowing industry to implement food safety control programs and to manage key risks” to save money. It also proposed to reduce mad cow sampling, limit feed inspections and end pre-market approvals for food labelling — a scheme that would allow companies to make outrageous claims and that even the Food Processors of Canada called idiotic. The federal document described the changes as “significant communication risks.”

According to Kingston, parts of the new system came into effect last March. (He has been enforcing the Meat Hygiene Act for 25 years.) The union president says meat inspectors are now spending more time reviewing company paperwork than inspecting the cleanliness of plants. In the old system, inspectors could shut down a line if they found a problem. Now, they must first file a report. “Paper audit systems as opposed to hands-on inspection are not equipped to deal with things as they come up,” says Kingston. “If the consequence of an error is catastrophic, the system should not only be paper audited.”

Rick Holley, a microbiologist at the University of Manitoba, also thinks Canada could be doing a better job. In particular, he singles out the lack of a systematic food surveillance program. In 1995, explains Holley, the U.S. set up a comprehensive program called FoodNet that gathers information from all points in the food supply system to “detect how many people are affected by food poisoning and what foods are causing the problem” in order to reduce illness. “We don’t do that in Canada,” says Holley. “We have surveillance that is incomplete.” Without a better national reporting system, he adds, “the lessons and history of this outbreak will be lost.”

Even the author of the 2008 study that gave Canada’s meat inspection system top marks is now having second thoughts. “The results of that study even surprised me,” says the University of Regina’s Charlebois. “We are dealing with a system that is anything but transparent. We have no sanitation reports and no data on this outbreak. Canada deserves better.” Charlebois suspects that food safety might become as significant a political issue in the next federal election as health care. “The system needs to serve industry and consumers well,” he says, “and I don’t believe we have that right now.”

Listeria contamination of deli meats may also shed more light on an even deadlier issue. Since 2003, hospital outbreaks of Clostridium difficile, a spore-forming bacteria that is highly heat resistant and a major pig disease, has killed thousands of elderly patients in Canada. Recent studies have found the bacteria in up to 30% of sampled raw meat and ready-to-eat meat products, which, as listeria proved, are commonly served in hospitals. “We need time to figure out what is going on,” says University of Guelph animal disease expert Scott Weese. “We have to find out if there are dots to connect.”