CBC News

Listeria hysteria?

by Amber Hildebrandt, CBCNews.ca

I don't typically buy cold cuts. In fact, I usually avoid them, having hated sandwiches since elementary school.

But, for some reason, I absentmindedly grabbed a package of turkey breast over the weekend, thinking it would be handy to have sandwiches for lunch. This in the midst of listeria hysteria.

I ate a few slices, but haven't touched it since Monday when news about Listeria monocytogenes reached a crescendo.

In the consumer's eyes, all cold cuts have been painted with the same tainted listeria brush, despite only one plant being at the heart of the recall. Consumers are avoiding the deli. Moms and dads are looking for alternative school lunches. Some are tossing all sliced meats and sandwiches from their fridges.

For the past few years, it has become routine for us to watch our neighbours south of the border struggle with massive food recall after massive food recall. But there have been few major outbreaks here in Canada.

In the latest debacle in the U.S., food detectives mistakenly implicated tomatoes in an outbreak of Salmonella, only later tracking it down to a Mexican-grown jalapeno pepper.

The frenzy to rid restaurants and homes of raw tomatoes trickled into Canada and four Canadians became infected. Other headline-grabbing food safety issues in the U.S. involved peanut butter, spinach and beef.

But now the Americans are tuning into hear news of Canada's internal food safety troubles.

The New York Times wrote about it (as did the BBC). U.S. food expert, Marion Nestle, posted an entry on her blog somewhat smugly titled, "Canada has its own problems with food safety."

The U.S. has actually taken a look at how we address food safety issues.

In a June 2008 report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office examines Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, plus agencies in several other countries.

The report cites Canadian officials as saying one of our most significant outbreaks of food-borne illness was in December 2005 when Salmonella-linked mung bean sprouts caused 300 to fall ill in Ontario.

This latest outbreak has been deadly, but so far only five deaths are linked to the bacteria strain found in the Maple Leafs plant, while 10 other deaths are under investigation.

Though tragic for the friends and families of the victims, these deaths have been few and Canada's food agency says cases of listeriosis are actually quite rare. So the question is: Are we overreacting?

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Antea Buel

We have to expect some exagerated reactions. After all, it is a bit too easy to spread death via ordinary food or drink. But people learn to be more carefull about what they consume.
What is my main worry in this outbreak is the lack of communication with us people. We need true explanations of the symptoms, how can we perhaps could give a boost to our immunity while waiting, what hospital to go to if there is danger of contaminating others like SARS, and what prevention rules to apply in all seasons, what food to avoid now even if we are already one of the next victims and do not know it yet.

Posted August 29, 2008 09:51 AM

Geoffrey T Falk


While food safety standards in Canada could perhaps be tightened, in terms of plant inspections for instance, there is certainly a risk of overreacting. There will always be risks in everything we eat or drink. Statistically the risk is much less than other everyday activities, such as driving a car. All packaged meats in the U.S. are required to be pasteurized, which changes their flavour and texture. Ontario recently backed down from a proposal that would have required all sushi served in the province to be frozen. Raw-milk cheese is another example. In the end it should be the consumer's choice whether to eat these products or not.

Posted August 29, 2008 12:58 PM



I'm just making sure I don't eat or buy anything on the recall list.

Posted August 29, 2008 05:21 PM



Well, I think using the word Hysteria is a bit over the top and shows how the media tends to over think things. I mean I don't see line ups and line ups of people in the clinics waiting to get blood tests for Listeria. As a matter of fact the Clinic I went to, didn't even know what test was to be given and had to call Public Health to find out.
I also think people have a right to be worried and no one should be judging them unless you are in their shoes and perhaps have eaten deli meat in the past MONTH. Yes I say month as it seems they knew about this LONG before they told the public.
I just got my test results back and I never ate the Roast Beef, but I did have a sub Sandwhich. I asked about cross contamination happening during the making of the sandwichs, and the idiot at Public Health said, well You can get hit by a bus, but its unlikely. Well to that Idiot, guess I got hit by a freakin bus then, eh???? Have you ever seen the people making a sub sandwhich WASH the knife after cutting EACH Sub???? That is cross contamination...duh.

Posted August 30, 2008 12:20 PM

albert paquette


Of course we are over-reacting. The chances of being poisoned by tainted food are virtually zero, but do not fear, big government is here.

As is always the case, governments jump at the chance to "do something" to protect us from some risk, real or imagined, and in the process, increase the size of the bureaucracy and their power to micro-manage our lives.

As it turns out, the source of the problem was in some intricate part of the machinery at one or two Maple Leaf lines - a location that was not part of the testing routine. So even if there had been 100 additional Federal inspectors on site, they wouldn't have found it.

According to economist Pierre Lemieux, the CFIA has hired 200 additional inspectors since the Conservatives took office, and they will be hiring 58 more this year.

To expect zero incidents of tainted food is to live in a fantasy world. In any case, do you not think that Maple Leaf is highly motivated to run a spotless operation? Their very survival depends on it.

Posted September 6, 2008 10:32 AM



Diana says: "Well, I think using the word Hysteria is a bit over the top"

Actually Diana, hysteria is correct - and you proved it. One would hope that the only people who are going to clinics or emergency rooms are those who are exhibiting symptoms. Unfortunately, Ontario seems to be filled with hysterical hypochondriacs who are further clogging the arteries of the Canadian health care system by demanding to be tested for lysteriosis.

Please people, I beg of you, eat critically. Think about where your food comes from! If it has been overly processed, much like deli meat, the chances of it being contaminated are greatly increased. Do us all a favour Canada - go out to a farmer's market, find a local butcher, ASK where your food comes from, buy local - buy fresh!

Posted September 9, 2008 06:10 PM

Bradley Jamieson

I firmly believe that we, as a country, may be over reacting slightly but the subject shouldn't be taken lightly. It is my understanding that the individuals who passed away (my thoughts go out to their families) had immune-type problems and if someone like myself, young health 20-year-old, were to consume infected meat, we'd just get sick with flu like symptoms.

I'm not saying that 'oh hey, I'm young so I'm immune to all illnesses, etc'. But my immune system would be quite different than that of an 80-year-old so our issues & feelings on this topic would be different.

Thankfully, I'm not a fan of processed meats in general, so the whole ordeal does not concern me, but my condolences do go out to the families who have lost someone to this outbreak.

Posted September 10, 2008 05:33 AM


I must admit that this outbreak has done little to affect my eating or buying habits. I guess I have put my trust in the hands of the people working in the grocery stores where I shop and those who are handling the food at the Maple Leaf level that they will not put anything on the shelves that will affect my health. (In saying that, I do realize that these are the same people who did allow for the outbreak to occur.) I feel that once they were made aware of the problem they have done everything in their power to protect the public from this outbreak. I don’t think they would knowingly aim to hurt anyone. I do agree that maybe some facts could have been delivered to the public sooner and made easier to understand. All in all I do feel that Maple Leaf has done a good job in responding to the situation and that it will not affect my buying of Maple Leaf products now and in the future.

Posted September 10, 2008 05:35 PM


I personally think that the hysteria surrounding lysteria isn’t that far-fetched considering the media is hyping up the outbreak more than they need to. It’s ok to cover a story of it during a week but to keep repeating it over and over again has the tendency to make people more paranoid or more careless.
It also doesn’t help that you hear all these professionals on the radio or TV every two seconds urging people that there is nothing to worry about and everything is under control. Sometimes reassuring people too much has the tendency to make them more paranoid.

Posted September 11, 2008 08:56 AM

Joey Cook


I do not think that this country is overreacting to this outbreak because when somebody dies from a disease like listeria caused by a certain type of food product from a company, it is very serious. Lucky for me, I always make sure that my family disposes of any contaminated food that is on the recall list for safety issues.

Posted September 11, 2008 06:38 PM

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Amber Hildebrandt Amber Hildebrandt writes for CBCNews.ca in Toronto. Growing up on a farm in Manitoba, she acquired an insatiable appetite, but it was during a stint in Japan that she developed her discerning tastebuds and "foodie" ways.

Andrea Chiu Andrea Chiu is an associate producer at CBC Radio Digital. Though she loves to eat, cook and discuss food, don't ask her to bake. It never turns out well. She tweets as @TOfoodie on Twitter and organizes food and wine events in Toronto called FoodieMeet.

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