Death of B.C. man linked to listeria outbreak

A man who died in a Vancouver Island hospital in late July had the same strain of listeria that is being blamed for three deaths in Ontario and has led to a Canada-wide recall of some packaged meat products, B.C. health officials said Friday.

17 confirmed cases across Canada, at least 16 other suspected cases

Dr. Robert Clarke of the Public Health Agency of Canada responds to reporters' questions concerning the listeriosis outbreak at a news conference in Ottawa on Friday. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

A man who died in a Vancouver Island hospital in late July had the same strain of listeria that is being blamed for three deaths in Ontario and has led to a Canada-wide recall of some packaged meat products, B.C. health officials said Friday.

The 64-year-old man, who died July 29 in Cowichan District Hospital in Duncan, B.C., may have consumed tainted meat while in hospital, the BC Centre for Disease Control said.

The man had other serious underlying health conditions and it was not certain that his death was caused by listeriosis, the centre said.

"Because he was sick, and because he had other conditions, it absolutely played a role," said Shannon Marshall, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver Island Health Authority.

"He was sick, he had listeria, and that was a factor in his death."

An investigation by the health authority determined that some Maple Leaf packaged meat products were "potentially" served at the Cowichan hospital, as well as a dozen other health-care facilities.

Earlier Friday, federal health officials confirmed that a third person in Ontario had died from listeriosis. The woman, who lived in a retirement home in St. Catharines, died in early July.

Her death was announced hours after public health officers in Waterloo confirmed that an elderly woman in that city died of the food-borne bacterial infection, and that she had the same strain that has spawned a nationwide outbreak.

An elderly woman from Hamilton was confirmed as the first fatality of the outbreak earlier this week. She died in June.

"In Ontario, there are three confirmed deaths at this point linked to the investigation, and another is still under investigation," Robert Clarke of the Public Health Agency of Canada told a news conference in Ottawa Friday.

A total of 17 cases of listeria, including the three, and now possibly four, deaths, have cropped up across Canada.

More cases are suspected

"An additional 16 samples from suspected cases are currently being tested to confirm that they are related to the outbreak, 12 from Ontario, one from Alberta, one from Saskatchewan, and two from British Columbia," Clarke said. 

"Again, this number will increase as the number of suspect cases increases over the next few days as the investigation is ongoing."

Additional cases are under investigation in Quebec, Clarke added.

Of the cases associated with the outbreak, eight are in Toronto, Dr. Vinita Dubey, an associate medical officer of health for the city, told reporters earlier Friday.

Health officials are advising people not to eat deli meat if they are not sure where it came from.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency found listeria bacteria at a Maple Leaf Foods meat plant in Toronto, but the federal agency is waiting for definitive test results, expected as early as Saturday,  to see whether it is the same strain as the one responsible for the outbreak.

"What we'll find out is whether the illness and the meat were linked, if it's the same strain," said Phillippe Brideau, a spokesman for Public Health Agency of Canada.

Meat recall

Brand names for the recalled Maple Leaf Foods products include Schneiders, Sure Slice, Deli Gourmet and Burns Bites. A complete list of affected products is available on both the Maple Leaf Foods website and that of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

On Friday, Maple Leaf Foods stressed there is "no definitive link" between its Toronto plant and the nationwide outbreak.

In an open letter, Maple Leaf president Michael McCain stressed the steps the company has taken, including a voluntary recall of 23 meat products.

Sterilization efforts continue at the plant, which closed on Wednesday and is expected to reopen on Monday.

The Maple Leaf meats are distributed to nursing homes, restaurants and deli counters across the country — including McDonald's and Mr. Sub.

Timing of recall questioned

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty acknowledged the outbreak for the first time Friday, and said his province "blew the whistle" thanks to an early-warning system put in place in the wake of the deadly SARS outbreak in 2003.

"I'm glad we got hold of it early, and now we'll take serious steps working with the feds to put it behind us," he told reporters in Thunder Bay.

Still, questions emerged Friday about the timing of the recalls. The first recall was issued almost two weeks after the first positive food sample was found.

Dubey said the City of Toronto sent food samples from a nursing home to a lab in Ottawa in early August for testing, and notified the Canadian Food Inspection Agency of the first positive samples on Aug. 6.

He said the food inspection agency and the city's health department then collected more samples and did more tests before asking long-term care facilities to put products on hold on Aug. 14. The food inspection agency issued the first Maple Leaf recall Aug. 17. 

Food inspectors

Meanwhile, talk of the federal government transferring food inspection powers to the industry came under fire from the opposition and agriculture experts. More than 3,000 employees with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency monitor the country's food supply.

"The first thing that has to happen is they have to abandon their idea of turning over to the companies that produce the food the responsibility to inspect that food," NDP Leader Jack Layton told reporters in Montreal Friday.

"They're interested in their own bottom line. They're not going to put the priority of Canadians' health first."

Speaking to reporters in Ottawa on Thursday, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz suggested the Tories want companies to play a greater role in inspecting their own products to free up government inspectors to take on a supervisory role. 

"We think we'll have far better oversight and tend to catch these types of things in a proactive way, as opposed to being forced to react like we are today," Ritz said, noting that his government has hired 200 more inspectors.

Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion told reporters in Toronto on Thursday that the Tories backing the plan are the same ones who were at the helm of Ontario's Conservative government during the tainted-water crisis in Walkerton, Ont., in 2000, which left seven people dead and more than 2,000 seriously ill.

Listeriosis, which can cause high fever, severe headache and nausea, among other symptoms, is a particular danger to the infirm, the elderly and the unborn children of pregnant women. The symptoms can take up to 70 days to appear.

The bulk of cases involve people who are over the age of 50.

With files from the Canadian Press