Canada’s Listeria Outbreak Waning but Not Over

As of this week, the number of confirmed <"">Listeria cases in Canada hit 29; an additional 10 are under investigation.  As of Monday, 15 people died.  Of the confirmed deaths, almost all were linked to people who were hospitalized or institutionalized prior to the outbreak.  Despite this, Public Health Manager, Pam Scharfe of the Huron County Health Unit (HHHU) says, “When you look at the hundreds of thousands of food products that are manufactured and brought into this county, we don’t have that many recalls.  We have a good system in place.”

Scharfe said the HHHU conducted 290 visits to places likely to have contaminated meat products, including supermarkets, convenience stores, kids’ camps, daycares, hospitals, and retirement homes.  Some products were linked to the recall although none were on sale to the public, and most were awaiting pickup for destruction; unit staff destroyed the remainder.  “As a society, we’ve become such a convenient society, even our institutions are buying convenient products,” Scharfe said. “You just don’t see the same cafeterias anymore.”

Because Listeriosis can take over two months to incubate, even though numbers of new Listeriosis reports are falling in Canada, the incubation period continues and new illnesses are possible.  “The outbreak can’t be reported over because we could still be seeing cases due to the 70-day incubation period,” said Scharfe.

Maple Leaf’s Sure Slice is the contaminated product that first came to the attention of  health officials.  Maple Leaf Foods has voluntarily recalled over 220 of their products, with cheeses and sliced mushrooms being added to the list in recent days.

Listeriosis is a type of food poisoning generated by the Listeria monocytogenes bacteria and is dangerous to the elderly, pregnant women, newborns, those with chronic medical conditions, people with HIV, or those who are undergoing chemotherapy.  Most people experience mild flu-like symptoms—fever, muscle aches, nausea, or diarrhea.  In serious cases, the disease spreads to the nervous system, causing headaches, stiff neck, and convulsions.  In pregnant women, Listeriosis can result in miscarriage or stillbirth.  Listeria lives in soil, stream water, sewage, plants, and food and can easily contaminate dairy and beef products; Listeria thrives in cold environments.

Although the average age of confirmed cases is 77 in this outbreak, Scharfe has warned that no precaution is too small and if a person is experiencing any of the flu-like symptoms associated with listeria they should still seek medical attention.  “If you’re a healthy adult and got several days of vomiting and diarrhea, you should get medical attention,” she said.

As consumers, the main thing to look out for, Scharfe said, is product code 97-B, which can normally be found near the “expiry” date on deli products.  If you have any such products in the fridge, throw them out, warns Scharfe.  While Maple Leaf was the biggest name in the headlines, there were 42 subsidiary company names associated with the recall.

Canada’s Public Health Association believes the origin of the outbreak to be linked to the internal workings of meat slicers.

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