Listeria tragedy prompts new ideas

Less than a week before parliamentary hearings begin delving into last summer’s listeriosis outbreak that killed 21 Canadians, a producer of chicken deli products has announced it is using a new technology aimed at eradicating food-borne pathogens.

TORONTO — Less than a week before parliamentary hearings begin delving into last summer’s listeriosis outbreak that killed 21 Canadians, a producer of chicken deli products has announced it is using a new technology aimed at eradicating food-borne pathogens.

Maple Lodge Farms Ltd. said this week that it has installed a processing system that uses extremely high pressure to virtually eliminate such microbes as Listeria, salmonella and E. coli from its products.

“What it does is it deactivates these potential food pathogens to undetectable levels,” said Maple Lodge Farms CEO Michael Burrows. “In the proper conditions they would be 100 per cent removed, but what we claim and what the industry claims is that they’re able to take it to undetectable levels, so minuscule levels.”

The move is just one taken by Canadian meat-processing companies, which have been scrambling to overcome an erosion in consumer confidence and slumping sales as a result of the deadly Listeria-contamination crisis.

Maple Leaf Foods Inc., Canada’s largest food processor, recalled some products and shut down its Toronto plant Aug. 20 after the bacterium was detected and linked to a countrywide outbreak of listeriosis. The plant reopened after several bouts of sanitization.

As a private company, Maple Lodge does not release market share figures, but Burrows acknowledged that industry-wide sales of deli-meat products were hurt by the Listeria outbreak as fearful consumers turned away from the wildly popular foods.

“There’s no question that the industry, because consumers have responded to the Listeria outbreak, what we saw certainly in that period was a reduction in sales and we would have seen our relative (market) share decrease, yes,” he said.

Using SafeSure — which will be indicated on package labels — is meant to help restore consumer confidence by adding another level of protection to foods.

Burrows said the system, which will be used to process such products as deli chicken and chicken bacon at its Brampton, Ont., plant, does not add chemicals or extra preservatives and also doubles shelf life.

The system involves surrounding already-packaged products with cold water within a large vat, then using a pump to exert massive pressure to get rid of micro-organisms while leaving the food products intact.

Still, the use of high-pressure systems for meat-processing isn’t new. Maple Leaf started using one called Ultra High Pressure about two years ago for a couple of its product lines and the technology is widely employed in the United States and other countries.

But does it work?

Mansel Griffiths, director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety at the University of Guelph, said the technology’s effectiveness depends on a number of factors, including the microbes that might be present.

“In general, there is some variation among different strains of Listeria as to how they react to high pressure,” Griffiths said. “But generally the pressure treatment, if the pressure is high enough and the time given is long enough, it’s an effective way of dealing with Listeria.”

“The beauty of it is the treatment can be done when the product is already packed. So that eliminates the possibility of any contamination after the event.”

Randy Huffman, chief food safety officer at Maple Leaf Foods, said both heat and high pressure can be “very effective at eliminating Listeria and other bacterial pathogens.”

“We’ve been using it on a couple of product lines — with no fanfare at all — for quite a while now and we’re evaluating a lot of different technologies because we do produce a lot of different types of products in different package formats.”

What works, what doesn’t work and what needs to be done from a regulatory standpoint will all be on the table as the hearings into how to improve Canada’s food safety system get under way Monday in Ottawa.

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