When a positive is a good thing

by MEAT&POULTRY Staff
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A new positive sample for Listeria monocytogenes was found late last week at a processing plant that belongs to a subsidiary of Maple Leaf Foods, the same Canadian company that found Listeria in one of its luncheon meat plants last summer, leading to the largest meat recall in Canada’s history – and that’s the good news. "From our perspective it’s really a non-story," Maple Leaf spokesperson Linda Smith told MEATPOULTRY.com, referring to the most recent positive test. "What it shows is that our enhanced food-safety protocols are working just as they should and generating a lot of data. For us to find a positive now means our detection is just that much better than before."

Inspectors from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) arrived last Friday at a plant operated by Cappola Food Inc., a subsidiary of Maple Leaf which produces deli meat for the Canadian and U.S. markets, after a positive Listeria sample had been reported. In a prepared statement, Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain said: "Our food-safety protocols are working and we have implemented the highest food-safety practices in Canada, well above government and industry standards. The greatest risk to the Canadian food safety system is the multitude of Canadian plants which do not find positive test results simply because they don’t test adequately. If you test, you will find and you can eradicate with the proper protocols. If you don’t test, you won't find, but there will be no eradication which is the real food safety risk in this country."

Smith said Maple Leaf’s food-safety protocols are now so stringent that positives might be a daily occurrence. In a statement, the company noted: "The goal of a well-designed program is to generate those findings, create data patterns for additional investigations and to use the results of these findings on a daily basis to eradicate it at the location in which it was found."

In the wake of last summer’s huge recall, Maple Leaf, which is headquartered in Toronto, Ontario, upgraded and improved more than 200 protocols in its facilities, according to Smith. The company also hired Dr. Randy Huffman, who had been president of the American Meat Institute Foundation, as chief food safety officer.

Among the enhanced protocols, Smith cited a doubling of environmental testing, full dismantling and testing of all equipment, and N-60 pathogen testing on all products as particularly important. Over the past three months Maple Leaf has collected more than 42,300 test results from its 24 packaged meat plants, for an average 1,760 tests per plant – level the company calls "unprecedented." Maple Leaf now claims to maintain a testing program for Listeria that’s equal to or better than any comparable testing at any processing company in North America. Its tests will detect any of six strains of Listeria, though only the monocytogenes strain presents a risk to human health.

Listeria monocytogenes is a difficult pathogen to control because, unlike traditional meat pathogens such as Staphyloccus and Salmonella, it is not inhibited by refrigeration. Moreover, it can live comfortably in floor drains and between the threads of machinery screws, among many other hard-to-clean sites. The outbreak of listeriosis last August that was traced to Maple Leaf packaged meat was implicated in 20 deaths. The company, which posted sales in 2007 of C$5.2 billion and which employs approximately 23,500 people, at first made a narrow recall of 23 products but within a few days expanded its recall to include more than 200 brands of packaged meat products. The processing plant that was identified as the source of the problem was closed for weeks while company crews as well as teams from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency scoured the operation. Last December, Maple Leaf settled a class action suit filed on behalf of listeriosis victims for a reported C$27 million.

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