i've been telling people for frickin years, in the future everyone will be a vegetarian.
Tests stun listeria experts
Contaminated meat found in two-thirds of Toronto samples taken before recall
October 9, 2008
Two-thirds of Maple Leaf meat samples collected from Toronto hospitals and nursing homes tested positive for a virulent strain of listeria just before the country's largest food recall, according to confidential data obtained by the Toronto Star and the CBC.
The test results show a dramatically high percentage of bacteria-laced ham, corned beef, turkey and roast beef was being served to hundreds of vulnerable hospital patients and seniors. Experts say it's more contamination than they have seen and further evidence of a health risk that should have been known to the public sooner.
"There shouldn't be any positives," says Rick Holley, a food safety expert at the University of Manitoba. "The reality is if you did a survey in the market, you might find one or two at most out of this sample that are positive ... And it is a particularly virulent strain of listeria. It's one of the bad ones."
The lab tests, conducted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and compiled in a document labelled "confidential," reveal 17 of 26 samples collected on Aug. 14 and 15 tested positive for the pathogen.
Some samples showed contamination of more than 20,000 "listeria monocytogenes," or individual bacterium, per gram of meat. Experts say anything above zero is dangerous because the bacteria, once present, multiply. These tests prompted the national recall of various Maple Leaf meat products.
The listeria outbreak has killed 20 people. Seniors are more vulnerable because of their weaker immune systems.
The samples were collected by Toronto Public Health inspectors from 13 Toronto nursing homes, hospitals and an HIV/AIDS hospice on orders from the provincial Ministry of Health and the CFIA as part of their probe into the outbreak.
Public health units from across the province were also ordered to collect samples. A federal government source confirmed yesterday that half of the provincial samples tested positive for listeria.
But the results in Toronto were worse.
"I'd never seen anything like this," said Dr. Vinita Dubey, Toronto's associate medical officer of health. "The fact that so many came back positive shows how contaminated the source was."
She said the samples of meat were unopened, ruling out any contamination from food handlers in the institutions.
"From a public health perspective, it means that someone could open the package and eat and it would have already had that level of contamination in it without (the) impacts of dirty hands or knife."
Positive tests show up on meat with "best before" dates ranging from early August to Oct. 1, which suggests the meat from the North York plant was being contaminated over nearly two months, said the University of Manitoba's Holley.
"Whatever the defect was here, it had to be a continuing source of contamination. There had to be a reservoir of the bacteria growing."
The particular strain listed in the test results – 1/2a – is considered one of the most dangerous because of its ability to survive in vacuum packages and because of its ability to resist digestion by white blood cells. This strain, along with strains 1/2b and 4b, are responsible for about 98 per cent of human listeriosis cases involving food.
The test results from mid-August are actually the second round of meat samples that Toronto Public Health collected during the course of the expanding investigation.
In late July, inspectors collected meat samples from a North York nursing home where two people were reported as ill with listeriosis – a highly unusual event.
Samples from that home were collected July 21, says Toronto Public Health's Dubey. But the testing process – which included sending the meat to a lab in Ottawa and then to a second federal lab in Winnipeg – took more than two weeks.
Results didn't come back until Aug. 5. They showed five of the 11 samples were positive for the listeria bacterium. Experts say, on average, no more than 3 to 5 per cent of samples should test positive.
Yet it would be another 12 days and another round of meat tests before a public recall was announced by the CFIA, on Aug. 17; it was vastly expanded a few days later.
Linda Smith, a spokesperson for Maple Leaf, said the company was informed of the second batch of test results on the evening of Aug. 16.
"On the basis of (the test results) we did a recall. When we looked at that we felt it was important to do more and that's why we closed the plant and recalled 191 products."
Dubey and many of her colleagues in the public health community say the delay in testing meat samples – and getting word to the public about the threat – was too lengthy.
"The CFIA needed a different level of evidence to go public compared with public health," she said. "Their methods are different from ours."
CFIA officials have vigorously defended their response to the outbreak, saying recalls must be based on science and that it takes time to identify the source of such an outbreak. Asked this week for comment on the results, the agency did not respond.
Maple Leaf officials have pinpointed the outbreak to meat slicers in the company's North York plant. The test results show the slicers must have been "heavily contaminated to make the results come back this positive," Dubey said.
Dubey says her health unit ordered nursing homes, hospitals and institutions to stop serving the Maple Leaf meat Aug. 14, when they believed there was sufficient evidence to suggest a link between the cold cuts and sickness.
The CFIA waited several more days for definitive test results before announcing the risk.
The test results show contaminated samples were sitting in kitchens across the city where meals for elderly, highly vulnerable residents were prepared.
"In an environment where these products are going to be consumed by that minority of the population that has some predisposition to some serious infection, this would represent a significant challenge for those people," says the University of Manitoba's Holley.
The tests were conducted on meat from sites that had a range of products. Each institution tested had purchased Maple Leaf products in large commercial-sized packages.
Among the results:
At The Village of Humber Heights seniors' home in Etobicoke inspectors found listeria-tainted turkey and roast beef in the kitchen.
A resident of the home who died in July tested positive for listeriosis, said Bob Kallonen, vice-president of operations for Oakwood Retirement Communities, which owns the home. But he says that person had other ailments that contributed to their death.
Two samples of Black Forest ham collected from Central Park Lodge nursing home in Toronto tested positive for the bacteria, the data shows. The company did not return a request for an interview.
Six of the seven roast beef samples collected in Toronto were positive for listeria, the data shows, including two from St. Joseph's Health Centre.
Carolyn Baker, president and CEO of St. Joseph's, says she's unaware of any illnesses from the meat that was being served in the hospital cafeteria when inspectors showed up Aug. 14 to take samples.
"At the end of the sampling, they indicated to us we should remove the meat from service," she said, adding the hospital was pleased Toronto Public Health advised them to remove the meat immediately.
She declined to comment on the delay it took for a federal recall to be announced three days later.
Six of seven turkey samples contained listeria, two of which were taken from Casey House, a Toronto hospice for people infected with HIV/AIDS.
A Casey House spokesman could not be reached for comment.
The Toronto plant where the listeria was found closed on Aug. 20 for deep cleaning and reopened four weeks later. The recall has cost the company an estimated $20 million.
In all, more than 220 products were recalled from stores across the country and consumers were advised to discard any they had. A Maple Leaf spokesperson said early last month the firm would store the recalled meat at four freezer facilities before disposing of it. Generally, recalled food is not tested.
CFIA inspectors interviewed by the Star and the CBC say the agency's recent move toward self-regulation of meat safety has compromised public safety. They say policy changes imposed earlier this year have shifted the responsibility for inspection to profit-driven companies while inspectors are left to review paperwork.
"We shouldn't be called inspectors any more. We should be called auditors," said one veteran CFIA inspector who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The amount of time my butt is glued to a chair has increased ... it's a travesty to the Canadian public that your grandmother could eat a sandwich and die."
Robert Cribb can be reached at email@example.com
or (416) 869-4411http://www.healthzone.ca/health/article/514527