Listeriosis outbreak result of 'leadership void'

The listeriosis outbreak in meat products in Canada during 2008, that killed 22 people and led to massive amounts of pork and other meat recalls, was the result of a 'void in leadership' within the federal Canadian government.

That is, in short the highly critical conclusion of a report by Sheila Weatherill, an independent investigator, who released her report earlier this week.

She said that company officials and overworked meat inspectors failed to identify a persistent listeria problem at a Maple Leaf Foods plant at the Maple Leaf Foods Bartor Road plant in Toronto.

Vacuum in leadership

She emphasised the 'vacuum in senior leadership' among government officials at the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency that caused 'confusion and weak decision-making.'

Despite the huge number of problems named in the report, agriculture minister Gerry Ritz said there will be no government compensation for the families of the 22 victims who died after consuming tainted meat. Maple Leaf has already apologised and agreed to pay up to CAN$27 million (US$24.5 million) to settle lawsuits.

Weatherill unveiled 57 recommendations aimed at preventing another outbreak.

Virulent bug

While conceding listeria is a "virulent bug that is very difficult to pinpoint and even harder to keep in check," the report names decisions that "were not thoroughly thought through or executed" at every level, which contributed to the outbreak.

Weatherill also found senior executives at both Maple Leaf and the government agencies were not fully engaged in food safety issues, cementing a lack of urgency in the way they initially addressed the brewing crisis.

At the plant level, Weatherill concludes company staff took action to destroy the bug whenever it was found, but they missed the 'big picture'.

This was the "repeated pattern of presence of listeria on the same production lines several weeks after the problem was presumed to have been fixed."

Maple Leaf

The source of the contamination was found in three types of prepared meat products made at the Toronto plant. In a press release, Michael McCain, president and CEO, said, "This report is tough and it ought to be, with strong recommendations for further improving the Canadian food safety system," said Michael McCain, president and CEO.

"We thought we had a good food safety programme last August, but our efforts failed with tragic consequences. Since then we have transformed every aspect of our food safety programme. We cannot and will not forget the lessons of last August and that means imposing the highest standard of food safety in every product we make."

Related websites:

Maple Leaf Foods
Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC)
Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA)

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