TORONTO Bacteria embedded deep inside slicing equipment at Maple Leaf Foods (TSX:MFI) may be to blame for the deadly listeriosis outbreak that caused 13 deaths, CEO Michael McCain said Friday night at a hastily-scheduled news conference.
An investigation has indicated that the Listeria bacterium may have built up in the mechanical components of two slicing machines, even though the company followed the rules to the letter, which included cleaning the machines on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, McCain said.
But other contributing factors may include the location of a service elevator, floor drain and bins - although the product likely did not come into contact with those surfaces.
The company said results of the investigation are not definitive, since the pervasiveness of Listeria "makes an absolute determination (of the outbreak) impossible."
"When (the experts) complete their investigation the best they can do is advise what their best judgment is and they feel quite strongly about that judgment," McCain said.
"In their best judgment, this is the most likely cause."
The investigation shut down the entire plant and the company said it recalled 191 products produced at the facility, at an estimated cost of about $20 million.
McCain said the large machines, which measure roughly four metres in length and three metres in height, will now have to be disassembled regularly.
"We will build that disassembly process into the normal protocol, which is really not that practical on an ongoing basis," McCain said, as he acknowledged the difficulty in taking apart the cumbersome machines.
"Long term, if that can't be sustained then we'll replace the equipment," he said.
McCain said the company followed the manufacturer's guidelines for cleaning the machines, which are relatively common pieces of equipment in the meat-processing industry.
The plant has remained closed since Aug. 20 and will not open until a comprehensive investigation has concluded, "deep sanitization" of the plant has been completed, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is satisfied no safety issues are outstanding, the company said.
"We're taking that one day at a time," McCain said, when pressed on when plant operations would resume.
To date, the plant has undergone five "intensive sanitizations" and tests; the two slicing machines in question have been disassembled, deep cleaned and retested multiple times for contamination.
Maple Leaf has swabbed and completed thousands of tests on 84 machines, the company said.
In addition to the 13 deaths connected to the outbreak, another six deaths are under investigation.
In all, 38 cases of listeriosis have been confirmed and 20 more are suspected.
McCain had previously issued an apology on behalf of his company in newspaper and television ads released last month.
McCain said Friday that he hopes consumers will accept the apology and come to trust the company's food again.
"That's a process that will certainly take time. I think it's going to be our consumers that determine whether they have confidence in us, not Maple Leaf."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has pledged to conduct a "broad" independent investigation into the listeriosis outbreak.
Federal officials have said they believe the worst of the outbreak may be over and few new cases are now expected.
Some key dates in the development of the cross-Canada listeriosis outbreak
TORONTO - June 2: Earliest date from which meat prepared at Maple Leaf Foods plant in north Toronto later begins to fall under suspicion of Listeria contamination.
Mid-July: Two people living at the same Toronto nursing home die and are diagnosed with a similar bacterial infection. Ontario health officials begin actively investigating cases of people falling ill.
Aug. 5: Samples taken from Toronto nursing home test positive for listeriosis.
Aug. 6: Canadian Food Inspection Agency notified of the results of Toronto sample testing; returns to nursing home to collect additional samples of meats and cheese.
Aug. 13: Maple Leaf notifies distributors they are under investigation; remaining inventory of Sure Slice roast beef, corned beef and Black Forest ham is put on hold.
Aug. 14: CFIA officials consult with public health officials in Toronto, who in turn tell hospitals and long-term care facilities to stop serving certain meat products and begin collecting additional samples.
Aug. 16: CFIA officials meet with Health Canada and recommend a recall.
Aug. 17: Two specific ready-to-eat products produced at Toronto plant - Sure Slice roast beef and corned beef - are recalled.
Aug. 19: Tests on recalled products come back positive; Maple Leaf prepares to expand recall.
Aug. 20: Federal officials confirm one death, 16 other cases linked to listeriosis outbreak. Products from two more Maple Leaf production lines are recalled, bringing total to 23. Toronto plant at the heart of the recall is shut down; Maple Leaf projects cost of recall at about $2 million.
Aug. 22: Officials confirm listeriosis associated with the outbreak caused the deaths of two elderly women in Ontario, bringing official death toll to three. Health officials in B.C. report death linked conclusively to outbreak strain of listeriosis, but death is later reclassified as "under investigation." Royal Touch Foods recalls Shopsy's Reuben sandwich, which contains recalled meat.
Aug. 23: Officials confirm link between outbreak and Maple Leaf products produced in Toronto. Maple Leaf chief executive Michael McCain issues abject apology, describes crisis as "the toughest situation we've faced in the 100 years of this company's history."
Aug. 24: As a precaution, Maple Leaf expands the recall to include all 220 products produced at the plant at an estimated cost of about $20 million. Television commercial featuring McCain's apology begins to air.
Aug. 25: Public Health Authority of Canada officials say six deaths in Ontario conclusively caused by outbreak strain of listeriosis, with six others - five in Ontario, one in B.C. - under investigation. Lucerne Foods announces recall of some Mac's and Safeway sandwiches across Western Canada, after some sandwich meat was named in Maple Leaf's latest recall.
Aug. 26: Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks on the outbreak for the first time, defending Conservative government's handling of the file. Atlantic Prepared Foods Ltd. and Metro Ontario Inc. recall several sandwich products sold in Maritimes and Ontario.
Public Health Authority of Canada officials say numbers of deaths under investigation up to nine from previous six, with 29 confirmed cases nationwide.
Aug. 27: Frances Clark, 89, of Madoc, Ont., becomes first victim of Listeria outbreak identified. Clark died on Aug. 25 in hospital.
Public Health Authority of Canada officials reduce the number of deaths conclusively caused by the outbreak strain of listeriosis to five from six.
The CFIA and Costco Wholesale Canada Ltd. recall two products that contain a ready-to-eat deli meat product previously recalled by Maple Leaf.
The CFIA recalls Cooked Ham and Salami sandwiches sold in Sobeys, Foodland and IGA stores in Ontario because they may contain a ready-to-eat deli meat product previously recalled by Maple Leaf.
Aug. 28: Public Health Authority of Canada officials raise number of deaths conclusively caused by the outbreak strain of listeriosis to eight from five. Twenty-nine cases have been conclusively linked to the outbreak, and an additional 36 suspected cases remain under investigation.
The CFIA recalls Deli Lunch Box Wraps on white or whole wheat sold in Sobeys, Foodland and IGA stores in Ontario because they may contain a ready-to-eat deli meat product previously recalled by Maple Leaf.
The CFIA and White House Meats Inc. of Toronto recalled oven roasted turkey breast sold at two Toronto locations that had been recalled by Maple Leaf.
Aug. 29: Health officials raise number of deaths conclusively caused by the outbreak strain of listeriosis to nine from eight. Twenty-nine cases have been conclusively linked to the outbreak, and an additional 35 suspected cases remain under investigation.
Aug. 30: Health officials confirm that two Alberta residents contracted listeriosis from the recalled meat. One of those cases is a woman in her 30s who died in mid-August, the first outbreak-related fatality in that province. It brings the death toll up to 10. Alberta's Chief Medical Health Officer, Dr. Gerry Predy, said he couldn't confirm whether the woman's death was caused by listeriosis itself or other underlying health problems.
Sept. 1: Federal health officials say the number of confirmed deaths has risen to 12.
Sept. 3: Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledges the federal government will conduct a "broad" independent investigation into the listeriosis outbreak. Federal health officials reveal another confirmed death from the outbreak strain, bringing the total to 13. They say the worst of the outbreak may be over and few new cases are expected.
Sept. 5: Maple Leaf Foods CEO Michael McCain says the likely cause of the outbreak may have been an accumulation of bacteria in slicing equipment at a Maple Leaf plant in Toronto.
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