Maple Leaf Foods Takes Blame For Listeriosis Outbreak

Company’s president insisted the problem and the ongoing efforts to fix it, including locating the original source of the bacteria, was Maple Leaf's responsibility alone.

TORONTO (CP) -- Responsibility for the sale and distribution of Listeria-tainted meat, which has been linked to an ongoing cross-Canada outbreak of listeriosis, belongs squarely on the shoulders of Maple Leaf Foods, the embattled company's president said Wednesday.

Michael McCain appeared to be trying to absolve the federal food inspection system of blame as he insisted the problem and the ongoing efforts to fix it, including locating the original source of the bacteria, was Maple Leaf's responsibility alone.

"It's our accountability that has been breached this week, not the system's," McCain said. "It's our job to fix that, and that's the action plan that we're putting into place."

Listeria-tainted meat has been linked to an ongoing outbreak of listeriosis that investigators say is to blame for the deaths of six people, all of them in Ontario. Another nine deaths, all of them connected to the outbreak, remain under investigation to determine the cause.

"This week, it's our best efforts that failed, not the regulators or the Canadian food safety system," said McCain, whose face became familiar to Canadians earlier this week in a Maple Leaf commercial that features him issuing an abject, heartfelt apology.

"I emphasize: this is our accountability and it's ours to fix, which we are taking on fully. We have and we continue to improve on our action plans."

McCain said the company recalled products well beyond those that had tested positive for the listeria bacterium, contacted all of its direct customers and warehouses and some 87 per cent of warehouses in the Canadian food chain.

Wednesday's comments came amid growing questions about whether anticipated changes to the federal food inspection system, detailed in a government memo that was leaked last month, may already have been in use at the Toronto plant at the heart of the outbreak.

Media reports Wednesday quoted a union official and former inspector with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency as saying inspectors at the plant had been relegated to auditing paperwork and dealing with several other facilities.

Reports last month suggested the federal Conservatives were planning to put more responsibility for food inspection in the hands of the companies themselves.

It remained unclear Wednesday when the Toronto plant at the heart of the outbreak, which was scheduled to resume production Thursday, would reopen, McCain said.

"We will not re-start the plant until this investigation is complete, and I've signed off on it personally."

Meanwhile, a funeral was to be held Thursday for a woman from Madoc, Ont., whose family says she died of listeriosis.

Frances Clark, 89, fell ill last week and died Monday, just three days after she was admitted to hospital. A statement from the local health unit describes a recent listeriosis death in the area as a "probable" outbreak case, but doesn't confirm the victim was Clark.

Clark's daughter Karen told the Toronto Star the family is waiting on "the powers that be" for more information about how she became infected.

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