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.

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