August 27, 2008 / 7:46 PM / 9 years ago

Maple Leaf takes blame for food poison outbreak

<p>A sign for the Maple Leaf food processing plant is seen in Toronto August 21, 2008.Mark Blinch</p>

TORONTO/WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - The head of Canada's biggest meat processor said on Wednesday his company was fully accountable for a nationwide outbreak of listeriosis food poisoning, which has been linked to deaths of 15 people.

"The buck stops right here," Maple Leaf Foods Inc <MFI.TO Chief Executive told a news conference.

"We have excellent systems and processes in place but this week it's our best efforts that failed -- not the regulators, not the Canadian food safety system," McCain said.

"I emphasize this is our accountability and it's ours to fix, which we are taking on fully."

Samples of two deli meats produced at a Maple Leaf processing plant in Toronto tested positive for the same strain of listeria bacteria that has made dozens of Canadians sick this summer, including 15 people who have since died.

The company, which faces a series of class action suits, has withdrawn all 220 or so products made at the plant as a precaution in one of Canada's biggest-ever food recalls.

The meats were shipped to nursing homes and hospitals as well as to restaurants and stores.

McCain said he did not know when the company would reopen the Toronto plant, one of 23 it operates. Originally, the plant was to have reopened on Tuesday, then on Thursday.

Third-party experts were examining the plant to find the root cause of the contamination, which McCain said might not be possible to determine.

The plant, which was closed on August 20, will not reopen until that investigation is complete, he said.

Maple Leaf shares rose almost 4 percent to C$8.29 on the Toronto Stock Exchange on Wednesday, but have lost more than 20 percent of their value since the recalls began on August 17.

Analysts have said the company's future will depend on its ability to regain consumer confidence.

McCain declined to provide any further details of the cost of the recall, which the company had previously put at C$20 million ($19 million). He also would not comment on whether the company had lost any contracts because of the outbreak.

SYSTEM DEFENDED

Canadian health officials defended their inspection system, which has been criticized by some members of the inspectors' union as being sparse and too reliant on industry data.

"We have an inspector in place on a daily basis when the plant is running in order to oversee the production process, in order to validate that the controls are indeed in place," said Paul Mayers of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, noting the approach was consistent with international standards.

Listeria bacteria is pervasive, and can be found at low levels in food processing plants, grocery stores, kitchens, and on people's hands, McCain said.

Maple Leaf and other processors focus their attention on preventing listeria from being introduced into packaged foods because it is possible to test contaminated food product and not find the bacteria, he said.

"It's tantamount to if you had a haystack with a needle in it," he said.

"You can walk out and take 10 samples of that haystack, you likely won't find the needle. What adds value is address what caused the needle getting in there in the first place."

Once Maple Leaf's plant reopens, inspectors will rigorously test and hold products made there for four to six weeks, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz told a separate news conference.

($1=$1.05 Canadian)

Reporting by Leah Schnurr and Roberta Rampton; editing by Ted Kerr

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