WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Three people in Ontario have died in a food poisoning outbreak that may be linked to sandwich meat from one of the country's largest meat processors, Canadian health officials said on Friday.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said it should know on the weekend whether deli meat produced by Maple Leaf Foods Inc, and now recalled, caused an outbreak of listeriosis, which is particularly dangerous for pregnant women, the elderly, infants, and people with weak immune systems.
Listeria bacteria is common, and a "minuscule amount" coming into contact with deli meats can thrive and multiply, even in the refrigerator, said Richard Arsenault, a national manager at the CFIA.
"It doesn't take a lot. You're not going to see it," Arsenault said, noting there were no signs of problems at the federally inspected Maple Leaf plant in Toronto that made the recalled meat.
"It's not like you're going to have dripping stuff all over the place. It just happens to get in there, despite having a very good system with a whole bunch of checks and balances," Arsenault told reporters.
There are 17 confirmed cases of the disease in Canada, mainly in Ontario, and another 16 people are being tested.
A small spike in the number of cases of the illness was first noticed in Ontario this summer, which sparked a national investigation, officials said.
Maple Leaf products were tested after officials compared what the sick people ate. The CFIA found 18 food samples contaminated with listeria bacteria from six types of meat products, and more are being tested, Arsenault said.
None of the products were exported, he said. Most were sold to restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes, and deli counters in grocery stores. Genetic tests will show whether the strain of the bacteria found in the meat is the same strain found in the sick people.
Maple Leaf closed the Toronto plant for cleaning, and federal inspectors are looking for the root cause of the contaminated meat they found, Arsenault said.
A spokeswoman for the company was not available for comment. The Globe and Mail reported that the company estimated the recall and plant closure could cost C$4 million ($3.8 million).
Maple Leaf stock dropped 4.6 percent on Friday to C$9.80.
Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Peter Galloway