Maple Leaf Foods linked to Listeria-related recall

by Keith Nunes
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TORONTO — A strain of Listeria implicated in five deaths and 50 cases of food-borne illness in Canada has been linked to a meat processing facility outside of Toronto owned by Maple Leaf Foods, Inc. As a result, Maple Leaf has recalled all products produced at the facility as of January of this year.

The recall began on Aug. 17 when Maple Leaf Foods announced it was recalling Sure Slice brand roast beef and corned beef due to Listeria contamination. The company expanded the recall on Aug. 20 to include a variety of processed meat products under the Schneiders, Deli Gourmet, and Burns Bits brands and closed the processing facility.

"From our standpoint this is the right thing to do," said Michael H. McCain, president and chief executive officer of Maple Leaf Foods. "If there is any question in the consumers’ mind about any product from that plant, then the onus is on us, and the C.F.I.A., to act decisively and swiftly to restore consumer confidence. Our actions are guided by putting public health first."

On Aug. 22, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Public Health Agency of Canada concluded that the strain of Listeria found in the Sure Slice brand products matched the strain involved in two cases of food-borne illness. As a result, Maple Leaf Foods expanded the recall again to include all products produced at the plant.

"This week our best efforts delivering the highest quality, safe food have failed us," Mr. McCain said. "We know this has shaken consumer confidence in us. Our actions will continue to be guided by putting their interest first."

Maple Leaf initially estimated the recall will cost the company approximately C$20 million ($19 million), which primarily will be incurred for the reimbursement for returned products.

"I expect that this charge will be included in results for the third quarter ended September 2008," said Michael Vels, chief financial officer of Maple Leaf Foods, in a conference call with financial analysts on Aug. 25. "This estimate is based on information available to us at this time and is subject to change, principally driven by the actual levels of product that will be returned by customers."

In a follow-up conference call with analysts on Aug. 28, Mr. McCain said the investigation for the source of the Listeria contamination was ongoing.

"Here are a number of the areas they are examining closely," he said. "They are looking at drains and drainage systems, refrigeration units and overhead systems, flooring, elevator protocols, in plant construction protocols, process flows of equipment and people, potential for temperature variability in the ovens, and they’re pouring over the data in search of root cause.

"Because Listeria is so widespread in our environment, the actual determination of that root cause for certain is unlikely, but we continue to seek it out, at least to narrow it down. This is a complex forensic microbiological investigation, and we have some leading third-party experts working on it.

"I reiterate, we will not restart the plant until this investigation is complete, and I’ve signed off on it personally. It is all being done collaboratively and in communication with the C.F.I.A."

As a result of the recall, Maple Leaf Foods also has become the target of a class action lawsuit. Two Toronto-based law firms, Falconer Charney L.L.P., and Sutts Strosberg L.L.P., are partnering and claiming C$100 million in compensation for consumers who purchased or consumed products on the Maple Leaf Foods recall list.

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