Listeriosis Scare Overwhelms Laboratories in Canada

by Gopalan on Aug 29 2008 9:48 AM

The listeriosis scare is overwhelming the blood testing laboratories in Ontario, Canada. The labs are being advised to refuse tests for those who have no symptoms.

There has been a massive recall of the meat products of Maple Leaf Foods, a leading, global food processing company, following a listeria outbreak.

As of Thursday, there were 29 confirmed cases of listeriosis caused by Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. Of the 29 victims, 15 have died — 12 in Ontario, one in British Columbia, one in Saskatchewan and one in Quebec. In seven of those cases, listeriosis has not been confirmed as the actual cause of death.

There are now 36 suspected cases of listeriosis — 19 in Ontario, one in British Columbia, five in Alberta, one in Manitoba and 10 in Quebec.

On August 19, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency issued a recall of Maple Leaf sliced corned beef, roast beef, pepperoni, salami, sausages, smoked ham, and turkey thought to be contaminated with the bacteria listeria monocytogenes.

Over the weekend, the number food products recalled rose to 220, including packaged sandwiches made with the tainted meat, with a total estimated value estimated of 20 million dollars.

It is in such a backdrop there seems a major rush for blood tests. Authorities say that it is normal for people who've eaten recalled meat to wonder if they'll get sick with listeriosis – the bacteria has an incubation period of 11 to 70 days. But in Ontario, so many people are seeking blood tests that the labs are unable to cope with the demand on them.

Healthy people who have eaten recalled products will likely be fine and need not seek medical attention. If you have eaten the products and develop food poisoning or a fever, those are reasons to go to a doctor, health officials said.

"The concern is, capacity will be completely overwhelmed and we won't be able to deliver service to people who really need to have blood cultures," said Dr. Frank Thompson, medical director of Lifelabs in Toronto, which analyzes blood samples sent by doctors from across Ontario.

Thompson's lab would normally run fewer than 10 blood cultures for listeria a day. Since the beginning of the week, the lab has been doing more than 150 a day.

There is no benefit in testing healthy people, agreed Dr. Vanessa Allen, a microbiologist at Ontario Public Health Labs.

"There is no test for those who are asymptomatic because it's not clear that would give us any information that would be helpful, nor is there any therapy that would be offered," said Allen.

Family doctors in Ontario said they were told about the meat recall, but they were given little other direction from public health officials.

"That advisory as far as I can recall didn't mention what should we be doing if a healthy person comes in and asks to be tested," said Dr. Dara Maker, a family physician in Toronto.

Thompson said he understands it is difficult for family doctors to persuade people they don't need the test, but he urged physicians to do so. Provincial health officials told doctors to order tests only if patients are showing symptoms, such as malaise, fever, diarrhea and cramps.

People in high-risk groups who exhibit symptoms, such as the elderly or pregnant women, should see a doctor immediately, Maker said.

In a news conference in Ottawa Thursday afternoon, Minister of Agriculture Gerry Ritz said his department is working "around the clock" to be sure all recalled products are removed from institutions.

"We have checked 15,000 institutions, distributors and retailers, and can say affected products are being removed thanks to the heightened public awareness," Ritz said.

In another development, CBC News learned of another suspected listeriosis death on Thursday. Sources told CBC that Elizabeth Schmidt, 81, of Leamington, Ont., died while being treated for listeriosis at the Windsor Regional Hospital.

The local health unit confirmed that a patient was in hospital with listeriosis, but would not release the patient's identity.

It's unclear whether listeriosis was the cause of death or whether the listeria strain that made Schmidt ill was the one connected to the nationwide listeria outbreak relating to Maple Leaf meats.

Since tests linked the listeriosis outbreak to a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto, the recall of meat products potentially tainted with Listeria monocytogenes has grown almost daily.

Late Wednesday, six sandwiches and two sandwich platters were added to the long list of recalled products, including cooked ham and salami sandwiches sold in Sobeys, Foodland and IGA stores in Ontario and two Kirkland Signature sandwich platters sold at Costco.

Not connected to Maple Leaf Foods, two brands of Quebec-made cheeses — Riopelle de l'Île and Mont-Jacob — have also been pulled from store shelves after officials found contamination from a strain of listeria different from that found in meat products linked to the deadly nationwide listeriosis outbreak. At least nine cases of listeriosis have been associated with the cheeses.

Maple Leaf Foods said Wednesday that it accepts the blame in the listeriosis outbreak, and that Canada's food inspection system is not at fault.

Company president Michael McCain said the Toronto plant at the heart of the recall won't be reopened until an investigation is complete and he has personally signed off on it.

Symptoms of listeriosis — which include high fever, severe headache, neck stiffness and nausea — can occur up to 70 days after consuming contaminated food, though the average incubation period is 30 days, the federal food agency said.

People most at risk include newborns, the elderly, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems, public health officials said. People should wash produce and avoid unpasteurized milk and dairy products, the CFIA advised.

Public health and Maple Leaf Foods officials have said the source of the contamination may never be determined, since listeria is widespread and commonly found in the environment, including in soil and in water.