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Food and drink: 97B is no good for me

The legacy of the listeria hysteria

Poor ol’ 97B. That’s the in-house designation for the Maple Leaf Foods plant located near Toronto on Bartor Road that’s responsible for the current nation-wide listeria concern. (Note that the recall list posted on-line is named for Bartor Road.)

If you’ve been on holidays, like many of us, and haven’t been paying a lot of attention to the news, here’s an update in an uncontaminated nutshell: What started as a vague awareness of some concern involving listeria, deli meats and two production lines back in June has now blossomed into a recall of some 220 meat products, and $20-plus million in direct costs and who knows how much in indirect costs to Maple Leaf Foods, normally considered a bastion of quality in the Canadian food industry. That, plus a growing flurry of concern, some warranted but most not.

To put things in perspective, let’s go over the facts. First, “L” is for Listeria monocytogenes, a bacteruim (bacteria is plural) that is dang near everywhere — in the soil, in the air, on grass, maybe even on your clothes. In fact, it could well be that the listeria responsible for this outbreak came from a worker’s clothing or the ventilating system at 97B.

Listeria is named for Lord Joseph Lister, an English surgeon and medical scientist practising in the mid-1800s who pioneered the use of chemicals to prevent surgical infections. He suggested all sorts of new hygienic procedures for surgery, including such basics as surgeons washing their hands and instruments with an “antiseptic” carbolic acid solution. Before that, you don’t want to know how surgery was done — surgeons didn’t even dip their hands in water between patients or get a clean pair of gloves!

“L” is also for Listerine, named for Lord Lister as well. This concoction, which first appeared commercially in 1879, was originally slated to clean floors and cure gonorrhea. So there you go. You never know what dastardly stuff something seemingly innocuous or commonplace was originally intended for or, conversely, what dastardliness something common can kick off under certain conditions.

But back to listeria and the ensuing hysteria.

Usually it’s vets, not doctors, who deal with listeria outbreaks and the subsequent bacterial infection called listeriosis. In animals it’s also known as circling disease, so-called for one of the common symptoms in cattle: they walk in circles. Other symptoms in animals include lack of coordination and a tendency to lean against supports because of the way the infection impacts the brain and nervous systems.

Listeriosis can also hit chickens, rabbits, sheep, dogs, goats and, of course, we humans. The symptoms and consequences vary from animal to animal.

Most healthy people with good immune systems contend with listeria just fine. Unless you’re exposed to too much of it, in which case you’ll suffer the usual “food poisoning” symptoms of nausea, throwing up and diarrhoea.

Ironically, unlike other potentially dangerous bacteria, the thing about listeria is that it multiplies in cold, namely temperatures your fridge is usually at. So if the stuff invades a package of cooked deli meet just before it leaves the factory and it’s kept refrigerated until you get it home, then you keep it in the fridge a while before chowing it all down… well, you get the picture, and one more reason not to stockpile food in your refrigerator or freezer.

Unfortunately, because listeria can contaminate so-called convenience foods like prepared deli meats and cheese that don’t need any cooking or prep, people using hospitals, care institutions or school cafeterias that rely on such products are often the main ones impacted, sometimes with deadly results. Those with compromised immune systems — the elderly, the unwell, small children — can experience fever, chills, headaches, photophobia (sensitivity to light) and possibly meningitis, coma or even death.

While such cases are rare, pregnant women should be extra cautious as they might miscarry or have stillborn babies, or their babies may contract meningitis after birth. This is at the root of the USDA advisory to pregnant women in the States against eating packaged deli meats.

Because listeria’s incubation period can be up to 70 days, no one is still quite sure the extent of this outbreak, which helps fuel the panic. To date there have been 15 deaths and counting, of the 29 recorded cases across the country. It’s good to step back from the statistics, because each death is tragic for those touched by it, but the fatalities so far were people with compromised immune systems.

Compare that to the listeria outbreak in Los Angeles in the mid-80s when 48 people died, most of them babies who had eaten unpasteurized cheese. Another 18 people died in the early 1980s in the Maritimes after eating contaminated coleslaw (cabbage can carry the bacteria when stored for a long time).

To put things in context, we suffer nearly 3,000 deaths in road accidents each year in Canada. Every time we crack an egg, we run the risk — albeit a very, very small one, just like the risk of listeria contamination — of ingesting salmonella. It’s also rare — but possible — to ingest toxins from bracken ferns that are collected as fiddleheads, or pick up hepatitis from strawberries or a staph infection from prepared salad mixes.

However, a quick browse through Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management of 1859 points out that most dangers we have to contend with today are mere piffles compared to those of a Victorian household in Lord Lister’s times: worms that caused fetid breath and a bulging of the abdomen; poisonous cheeses or mussels or bacon; canned goods that turned a limey-yellow; fish that may be fresh but not good .

So before we start demanding irradiation machines at every meat plant and corner deli, it’s not a bad idea to keep perspective on the reality of food risks around us. It’s also important that any precautions for enhanced food security don’t create more problems than they solve, like we did shutting down small butchers in face of the big E. coli scare.

The one silver lining that might rise up from all this is the many conversations underway about real food security, and how to source products that makes us feel good physically and psychologically about what we’re eating. While you gnaw on a raw carrot, think about what that means to you, and how you’d interpret it.

 

• • •

For a full list of recalled Maple Leaf Food products go to www.mapleleaf.ca/pdf/BartorRdProductRecallList.pdf. If nothing else, it’s curious to see how many different brand names and products come from a single plant. The easiest check, though, is to look next to the expiry date on any deli-style meat you have. If it says 97B, get rid of it.

 

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who never really buys mass-produced deli meat anyway.




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