CEO says listeria in Toronto meat plant no surprise

Thu Oct 9, 2008 4:44pm EDT
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By Roberta Rampton

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Maple Leaf Foods Inc Chief Executive Michael McCain said on Thursday it was not surprising to find listeria bacteria lingering in a Maple Leaf meat plant in Toronto whose products have been linked to at least 20 deaths in a food-poisoning outbreak.

"Listeria exists in 100 percent of all (meat) plants, and it is impossible to eliminate it," McCain told reporters, noting the company sanitizes its plants for six to eight hours a day to reduce the risk of the bacteria contaminating food at levels high enough to cause illness or death.

Maple Leaf, one of Canada's largest meat processors, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency announced late on Wednesday that four samples of meat products at the plant had tested positive for the bacteria.

Earlier this summer, contaminated meat from the same plant caused an outbreak of listeriosis.

The company said two slicers in the plant were behind the outbreak, which prompted one of the largest meat recalls in Canada's history.

"What occurred a month ago was not about the existence of listeria in the plant," McCain said. "It was about a harborage point ... deep inside a slicer that avoided our sanitation process."

Maple Leaf shares have plunged more than 30 percent since the outbreak, and were down 43 Canadian cents at C$7.31 on the Toronto Stock Exchange on Thursday.

The plant resumed processing three weeks ago and has been running at 30 percent capacity as government officials rigorously test meats produced there, all of which are being held in warehouses.   Continued...