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Health Canada, seniors, and listeria

Health Canada's now-infamous 2005 advisory to seniors, pregnant women, and immunocompromised individuals, warning against consumption of non-dried deli meats, has come under predictable criticism as insufficient in the wake of the listeriosis outbreak.

The warning remains posted on the agency's website at, a few clicks away from the main page, but consumer advocates are asking if that's enough publicity for a potentially fatal risk.

"Maybe we need warning labels (on the food), because the message isn't getting out there," Dr. Doug Powell, associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University, told Canwest News last week. "And the consequences are bad. The kill rate is about 20-30%. That's really high for a food-borne pathogen." According to Powell, the listeria bacterium can grow on food even when refrigerated.

Health Canada defends its communication efforts, maintaining that "there are a number of food safety tips and fact sheets and a lot of consumer education on (listeria)."

Its inspection standards are also currently under fire, but experts warn against a more draconian approach. Keith Warriner, University of Guelph professor of food microbiology, defends those standards as judicious and safe. "Once (listeria) becomes established in a processing environment, it's very difficult to remove," he told the Toronto Star. "You can reduce numbers to low levels by sanitation and good practices, but it's hard to eradicate. What we do in Canada is say, 'We know that listeria is ubiquitous, that it will be in processing plants regardless of what preventive standards we have.'" Only hazardous concentrations, defined by federal regulations, will prompt a recall.

This is a different policy than in the US, where plant inspections enforce a zero-tolerance policy on listeria. One single cell of it triggers a shutdown. Since it lives everywhere, meat recalls are a spectacularly regular occurrence stateside, climbing to 118 per year in 2006. As a result, companies minimize self-reporting whenever possible, and consumer confidence turns to consumer fatalism, tuning out the risk more and more with each new announcement.

While defence of a more nuanced approach may be unpopular in the wake of the recent tragedy, it's important to note that listeriosis is a regular occurrence, mostly running its course without treatment but occasionally proving fatal, almost exclusively among high-risk groups with weakened immunity. Demands for more stringent protocols, in the belief that 100% eradication is possible, offer little increased protection to those most vulnerable. Public service broadcasts on every risk to their condition are no more reasonable an option.

Successful future efforts at reducing contamination will likely depend on two things: technology to prevent listeria growth in packaged foods, and standards of education for food handlers and caregivers equal to our standards of inspection and disinfection.



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