Another recall…can’t Maple Leaf get it right????August 4th, 2009 by Dr. Randy Huffman
In the early hours of this morning, Maple Leaf announced a voluntary recall of a number of wiener products. This has many people asking “why another Listeria recall – can’t Maple Leaf get it right?”
It’s a fair question.
The truth is that the events of last summer and the events of this week could not be more different.
In spring of 2008, our food safety practices were not nearly as good as they are now. We thought they were good then, but we were wrong. Our testing program allowed a serious accumulation of Listeria in one of our slicers to go undetected. By the time of the recall, food had gone out of our plant with enough Listeria in it that 22 Canadians died.
Following the tragedy of last summer, Michael McCain committed to making Maple Leaf Foods a world leader in food safety. I was hired as the Company’s Chief Food Safety Officer to make sure we put in place a world class program and with the authority to shut any plant, any time, if I think it isn’t safe enough.
In the past year, we have taken many actions to live up to that promise:
- New methods of sanitization that are the best practices in the world
- Extensive employee training on food safety and Listeria control
- Implementing new technologies that can either eliminate Listeria in the package, or reduce its growth during storage if it happens to be present.
- Doing far more aggressive testing than regulations require to find Listeria and eradicate it.
Despite all that, we have another recall???
Actually, it’s because of the testing protocol that we have another recall. Listeria is a common bacteria – it can be in virtually 100% of refrigerated food plants. It also exists at low levels in one out of every 200 ready-to-eat food products and even higher levels in many other foods we eat. Last August we had a concentration of Listeria in some of our products that was enough to make some people sick, and others died. We know a lot more now – we test more for Listeria, find it more and act more. And that’s a good thing for food safety.
Our environmental testing regime told us there was Listeria on a line in a wiener plant. Finding positives is a part of a well run environmental testing program. The process includes baseline levels of testing, enhanced levels of sanitation and testing, quarantine procedures and product testing. Each of these components is important to the process and in this case all components of this process were working exactly as designed and in compliance with the new CFIA Listeria directives. Upon receipt of positive results we immediately informed the federal government through the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. They felt upon assessment of our routine data that it was necessary to take additional tests. When this was done, out of over 230 products sampled, three were confirmed positive based upon the information we have to date. We recalled the product in this case to be ultra cautious.
This creates a real dilemma for us. I have to be frank with you. Nothing we can do – nothing anyone can do – will completely eliminate Listeria from the food supply. Listeria is found in about 0.5% of ready-to-eat meat and poultry products based upon best estimates from the USDA. This percentage means that one out of every 200 packages is likely to be positive. I know consumers might prefer that this number was zero, and food safety professionals certainly strive for this goal. Eliminating potentially harmful contaminants entirely is every food scientist’s Holy Grail. But being able to do that in a typical food processing plant is very difficult, if not impossible to do. The best we can do is get ever-closer – to work constantly to keep the level of Listeria as low as we know how to get it.
One thing that can improve our situation is have access to more rapid testing methods already widely used in the U.S. and Europe.
In Canada today, it takes on average about a week to get the results of a Listeria test. So if a test in a ready-to-eat food shows a potential food safety problem, the only way to address the problem is to recall the food … as much of it as hasn’t been eaten yet. Rapid testing done by labs in each plant cuts the time from a about one week to a day or two, providing us with information that allows us to act sooner at the plant. Maple Leaf will act immediately to implement rapid testing at our prepared meat plants when approved – and is pushing for government approval of these more rapid testing methods.
While faster testing will reduce the time that it takes for us to respond to Listeria when we find it, it does not eliminate the fact that it will be present from time to time. There are limitations to all test methods, and re-testing of products that have already passed a rigorous testing protocol may result in occasional subsequent positive findings, as was this case in this recent recall. There has undoubtedly been food on the market with greater concentrations of Listeria than the food we just recalled. However, consumers didn’t know about it and neither did the manufacturers or the regulators, because there wasn’t enough testing to find it. Our programs are designed to aggressively test and when we do, find it and act on it. We think that is the right thing to do.
Canadians have trusted us, and now we have to trust them. We will err on the side of caution and do what is needed to place consumers first. I know it’s complicated and no one likes risk or recalls (especially us), but we need people to understand that the real risk is no action.