Toronto health officials told the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to warn
the public several days before it announced a link between Maple Leaf deli meats and a deadly nationwide listeriosis outbreak, CBC News has learned.
The public health workers were investigating suspected listeriosis cases and had gathered enough evidence by Aug. 14 to make a connection between Maple Leaf Foods deli products and the illnesses.
"It seemed that there was a connection between Maple Leaf deli meat and illness," said Dr. Vinita Dubey, CFIA associate medical officer of health told the CBC and the Toronto Star this week.
Toronto officials told the agency they had enough evidence to make a connection and pressed the CFIA to warn the public about Maple Leaf products. This conversation took place during a conference call with members of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency on Aug. 14,
CFIA officials, said they needed to wait for one more set of test results from unopened meat packages.
"We were suggesting at least, you know, do we need to message anything? Who else is at risk? But this is the level of scientific rigor that CFIA requires," Dubey said.
"They wanted to collect further samples and wait."
The CFIA had already identified listeria bacteria at the Maple Leaf Foods meat processing plant in Toronto and begun an investigation of the company, however, the federal agency said it wanted definitive test results to see whether it was the same strain as the one responsible for the outbreak.
The CFIA issued a health hazard alert on Aug. 19 warning the public not to serve or consume several brands of ready-to-eat deli meat products, including Maple Leaf, which had already begun voluntarily recalling the affected products.
When the CFIA made the announcement Maple Leaf Foods was in the midst of a $2-million voluntary recall of more than 20 different products and had temporarily closed the Toronto plant to re-evaluate its food safety procedures.
Toronto Public Health claims it had sufficient evidence including:
* two deaths linked to listeriosis
* more cases being reported
* meat samples from sandwiches tested positive
* samples from opened meat packages were taken
* Maple Leaf notified its distributors it was being investigated by the CFIA
In 2005 when an outbreak of salmonella was found in bean sprouts in Kingston, Ont., regional health officials didn't wait for definitive proof to issue their own recall.
"I think it's a less desirable approach, from the point of view of the people we serve, to say, 'We'll have to wait and have confirmation before we can intervene,'" said Dr. Ian Gemmill, the medical officer of health for the Kingston Area Health Unit.
Some experts say the CFIA's mandate needs to be revised so that the agency does not serve a dual role of protecting public health at the same time that it promotes trade and biotechnology.
"We need to revisit the CFIA's mandate and try to separate the industry interest with consumer interest, supply and demand," said Sylvain Charlebois, an assistant professor in marketing at the University of Regina.
"We can't have one agency addressing both at once."