Just days before kids headed back to school, the latest food borne illness struck Canada, and this time, it came in the form of a long-time schoolyard staple — Maple Leaf Foods’ sandwich meats.
The bacterium Listeria monocytogenes (let’s just call it listeria, okay?) are at the root of this most recent food-borne panic. Listeria is commonly found in soil, vegetation, water, sewage, silage and human and animal waste. Plants and vegetables can become contaminated with listeria from soil, water and manure-based fertilizers, and farm animals that appear healthy can also carry the bacteria, which may contaminate meats and dairy products. What makes listeria somewhat different is that, unlike most bacteria, it can survive and grow on foods stored in refrigerators, and contaminated products look, smell and taste normal.
It’s also pretty serious stuff — it can cause brain infection or even death, especially in pregnant women, the elderly or people with weakened immune systems. If it isn’t fatal, the symptoms include nausea, vomiting, cramps, diarrhea, headache, constipation and consistent fever. Doesn’t sound like a good time to me.
Maple Leaf Foods has recalled over $20 million worth of ready to eat meat products in the wake of this outbreak, which may have killed 13 people across the country and has hospitalized many more.
According to a press release issued by Maple Leaf Foods on Sept. 5, internal and external experts have concluded that the most likely source of the contamination was at their Bartor Road plant “deep inside the mechanical operations of two slicing machines.” Despite daily “rigorous sanitation” of the equipment, in accordance with the equipment manufacturer’s recommendations, when the inspectors took the equipment apart, they found areas where bacteria could have accumulated deep inside the machines.
The incident, which has been picked up by local, national and international news media, has left consumers across Canada leery of deli meats, and has even led some to question the safety of our food inspection processes. In fact, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has decided to launch an investigation into the whole ordeal, which will include an examination of the events leading up to the outbreak, a review of the response of federal agencies, and recommendations to prevent future outbreaks.
But knowing that the powers that be are planning to dissect the Maple Leaf Foods incident and offer up their findings to the public by next March doesn’t help much when you’re standing in the deli aisle at the local grocery store, scratching your head and wondering if its safe to send a ham sandwich to school with little Suzie or Johnny.
Let’s face it, we put a lot of trust in the companies that produce and prepare our food, whether they’re products we purchase from the store, or dinner at a local restaurant. Too much trust, really. I mean, we hear disgusting stories about our favourite foods all the time — bandaids in beverages, bugs in chip bags — and we still go out and let strangers prepare our food. And this recent listeria outbreak isn’t exactly unique — at the beginning of the summer, there was a massive salmonella outbreak in the United States linked to uncooked tomatoes; and at the end of July, a bunch of cilantro was recalled in Western Canada over salmonella contamination concerns.
Now, I’m not trying to downplay this current listeria outbreak — it’s definitely a big deal — but from their initial findings, it doesn’t really seem like Maple Leaf Foods dropped the ball. Sure, their inspection wasn’t exactly entirely unbiased, but if what Maple Leaf is saying is true, they were following procedure to a T. Hopefully, Harper’s massive investigation into the outbreak will look at the underlying food protection policies at play, not just zero-in on the company that’s in the midst of dealing with the PR and economic fallout from this incident.
In the meantime, what can consumers do? To be honest, not much, aside from ensuring they wash, handle and prepare their food properly.
And as far as sandwiches go, I personally would hate to see this lunch hour delicacy abandoned because of this listeria outbreak. If you’re not willing to put your trust back into deli meats just yet, there are plenty of other healthy, delicious alternatives to stack between those slices of bread.
At the risk of sounding cheesily positive, let’s use this experience as an excuse to get creative with sandwiches — try spicy hummus, sliced peppers, havarti cheese, tomato and cracked pepper on sourdough, or tuna with mayo and celery on rye. The possibilities are endless.