Listeria probed in two deaths
March 13, 2010
Torstar News Service
Toronto food inspectors fanned out across the city Friday to warn delis, restaurants and supermarkets about a listeria outbreak that sent two people to hospital in the province and sparked an investigation into two deaths.
The hospitalizations, traced to a Toronto deli meat manufacturer, are part of a dramatic spike in listeria cases in Ontario since January that has renewed concerns about the country's food safety system just 18 months after 22 Canadians died from tainted meat at a Toronto-area Maple Leaf Foods plant.
Packages of prosciutto cotto cooked ham and mild cacciatore salami made by Siena Foods Ltd. have been targeted as a possible cause in this latest outbreak, said Dr. Arlene King, Ontario's chief medical officer of health.
The company's salami was recalled in December and the ham was recalled early Friday. The ham was sold to delis, grocery stores and specialty food stores after Jan. 11.
"We are using a variety of different methods to ... prevent any further exposure to this product by the public," King said.
Two Ontarians died during the same time the tainted Siena meat was in the marketplace, she said, and provincial officials are investigating whether there is a direct connection between those deaths and the company's products.
Officials wouldn't release details of the deaths or where they occurred. Siena officials did not respond to interview requests Friday.
Jim Chan, senior health inspector with Toronto public health, said city officials were first warned of the problem in a teleconference on Thursday.
The conversation was with the Ontario Ministry of Health and Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
"Any time we're dealing with food contaminated with listeria, it can be serious to the public if immediate action is not being taken," Chan said.
People who bought the recalled deli meat may not realize it is the Siena brand, the CFIA said in issuing a health alert.
The original brand and best-before dates of March 8 and March 22 "may not have been transferred at the deli counters to consumer packages."
The agency advises people who bought cooked prosciutto after Jan. 11 and don't know the original brand should ask their stores or suppliers to be safe.
Since January, the province has had 14 confirmed listeria cases (six in Toronto), well beyond the eight typically expected for this point in the year, King said. Of those cases, seven people have been hospitalized.
"We do not know what the source of infection is in the majority of these individuals and we may never know," King said. "Why there's an overall increase in (listeria cases), we don't know and the investigation is ongoing for that reason."
Two Torontonians sickened by a strain of the pathogen that matches the Siena meat were hospitalized and are now recovering, she said.
Siena meat has been the subject of four recalls since 2007, including the December salami recall.
Experts say the new sicknesses provide a vivid reminder of how the Maple Leaf tragedy in 2008 triggered the biggest listeria outbreak in Canadian history. An in-depth review subsequently made 57 recommendations urging greater transparency and vigilance around listeria testing at all levels of government.
Little has changed, said Rick Holley, a microbiologist and food safety expert at the University of Manitoba and a consultant with the CFIA.
"I haven't seen improvement," he said. "We haven't seen any reduction, in my view, of the risk. We're not doing food-borne illness surveillance the way we should. I'm not encouraged that, materially, we've got the kind of buy-in by industry we need to move forward with confidence."
Robert Charlebois, executive director of food safety and consumer products for the CFIA, said that despite the current spike in listeria cases, improvements are in place at the federal food safety regulator.
"We have learned from the previous listeriosis cases and the recommendations. We have implemented quite a bit of the recommendations ... We are implementing as we speak."
Asked why the company was allowed to continue selling its products over the past two and half months following the listeria finding, Charlebois said follow-up tests indicated the pathogen had been removed.
That conclusion changed on Thursday night when the CFIA issued a recall on listeria-tainted ham from the same plant.
The two cases "may or may not be linked," he said. "You could have two isolated incidents ... The investigation is still ongoing."
Siena continues to produce meat, he said. But the company will only be allowed to release its products to the marketplace if they test negative for listeria, Charlebois said.
Listeria can cause fevers and nausea and is particularly dangerous for pregnant women, children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.