Maple Leaf reopens plant at heart of listeria outbreak

Maple Leaf Foods has reopened the Toronto plant connected to Canada's deadly listeria outbreak, but it has not yet started shipping the meat processed there.

Maple Leaf Foods has reopened the Toronto plant connected to a deadly listeria outbreak, but it won't start shipping the meat processed there for a week.

Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain said his company and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency are satisfied the plant, which closed Aug. 20, can safely resume production.

McCain said new, strict safety protocols have been introduced, but Maple Leaf won't start distributing meat until it is confident that all the measures are working effectively. That will likely take another week.

"We are going to ramp up the plant gradually," McCain told reporters in Toronto.

"No product will be distributed until the [Canadian Food Inspection Agency] and Maple Leaf are confident that our new food safety protocols in this facility are effective. This will include test runs before any new product is shipped."

17 people dead across Canada

The plant closed four weeks ago after it was identified as the source of the listeria outbreak that is linked to 17 deaths across Canada. A total of 191 products produced at the plant were recalled during the crisis, costing Maple Leaf an estimated $20 million.

McCain said slicing equipment at the plant will now be subject to stricter cleaning and testing protocols, including disassembling the machines every day to check for gatherings of listeria. Tests and samples will be done more frequently.

McCain said the company had cleaned its machines on a daily, weekly and monthly basis as recommended by the manufacturer, but it wasn't until the machines were disassembled that Maple Leaf found an area where listeria bacterium likely embedded itself.

"This listeria incident is unique in our 100-year history as a company and it reminds us that our best efforts failed in this instance," McCain said.

"We have learned from this tragic experience and we can and will do more," he added.

He said a long-term program is being launched to ensure there are more improvements to Maple Leaf's training programs and manufacturing processes. A food safety council made up of international microbiologists, public health specialists and food safety experts will be formed within three months to guide the company in its operations.

Maple Leaf will also name a chief food safety officer who will report directly to McCain.

Wednesday's news came a day after an elderly New Brunswick woman became the 17th person whose death has been linked to the outbreak. 

Also Tuesday, the Canadian Medical Association Journal released an editorial that slammed the federal government for its handling of the listeria outbreak, saying Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has reversed much of the progress previous governments made in relation to public health.

With files from the Canadian Press