Maple Leaf takes responsibility for outbreak

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Canada's food inspection system, under scrutiny amid a massive meat recall and a listeriosis outbreak that's killed at least five people, was absolved of blame Wednesday by the president of embattled meat giant Maple Leaf Foods and defended by the minister of Agriculture.

Michael McCain - the Maple Leaf chief executive whose abject apology has been playing in television commercials across Canada for nearly a week - said both the recall and the responsibility for fixing it are for his company to bear alone.

Maple Leaf Foods president and CEO Michael McCain speaks during a news conference in Toronto Wednesday. - Photo by The Canadian Press

TORONTO - Canada's food inspection system, under scrutiny amid a massive meat recall and a listeriosis outbreak that's killed at least five people, was absolved of blame Wednesday by the president of embattled meat giant Maple Leaf Foods and defended by the minister of Agriculture.

Michael McCain - the Maple Leaf chief executive whose abject apology has been playing in television commercials across Canada for nearly a week - said both the recall and the responsibility for fixing it are for his company to bear alone.

"I reiterate: the buck stops right here," McCain told a news conference at company headquarters in Toronto.

Just two hours later, Agriculture and Agri-Foods Minister Gerry Ritz dismissed a media report suggesting federal inspectors at a Toronto processing plant where the Listeria-tainted meat originated were mired in paperwork and not on the production floor.

"We are saying that's not true," Ritz said of the report. "About 50 per cent of an inspector's time is spent on the floor of the plant; the other 50 per cent is overseeing paperwork, most of it scientific in nature - test results and the like."

With the drumbeats of a looming election campaign growing ever louder, Ritz insisted the federal Conservatives have done nothing to impair the government's ability to ensure Canadians need not fear from what's on their dinner tables.

"We're concerned with the safety of the food supply and Canadian consumers," he said. "There is no valid argument whatsoever that there's been cuts to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA)"

Canada has "one of the most stringent food safety systems in the world, but we can always make it better," Ritz said.

"That's why we're investing $113 million in Canada's Food and Consumer Action Plan and have already hired 200 more inspectors with more to come."

Late Wednesday, the CFIA and Costco Wholesale Canada Ltd. issued yet another recall warning - this one about Kirkland Signature brand meat-and-cheese platters that may contain meat products already recalled by Maple Leaf.

The latest recall applies to Kirkland Signature brand Croissant Platters (UPC 0 00000 29048 7) and Meat & Cheese Platters (UPC 0 0000 10683 2) carrying best-before dates up to and including Aug. 28 and Aug. 29, respectively, and sold through Costco Wholesale outlets across Canada.

There have been no reported illnesses associated with the platters, the CFIA said in a release.

During a visit to the Northwest Territories, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said his government plans to change the food inspection system to put "greater responsibility" on the producers.

"There has to be a shared responsibility. There is no system in the world where every product is inspected all the time. That's just not feasible," Harper said in Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T.

"Through this particular crisis we will evaluate everything we learned from it, and make sure the changes we are making will prevent this kind of thing from ever happening again."

The ranks of Canadians who are joining class-action lawsuits against the 100-year-old meat packer continued to swell Wednesday even as the number of deaths being blamed conclusively on the outbreak dwindled slightly, down to five from six the day before.

Tony Merchant, a lawyer heading a class action for Merchant Law Group based in Regina, said more than 1,450 individuals had joined the suit as of Wednesday afternoon.

The rapid growth of the class action is "shocking" and "unprecedented," said Merchant.

Ten deaths, all of them linked to the outbreak, remain under investigation to determine if they were caused by a bacterial infection that up until two weeks ago, the average Canadian had never even heard of.

Some 29 confirmed cases exist across Canada - 22 in Ontario, four in B.C., one in Saskatchewan and two in Quebec - while an additional 30 cases remain classified as "suspect."

Media reports Wednesday quoted Bob Kingston, a union official and former inspector with the CFIA, as saying inspectors at the plant had been relegated to auditing paperwork and dealing with several other facilities.

Reports last month, linked to a leaked cabinet memo, suggested the federal Conservatives were planning to put more responsibility for food inspection in the hands of the companies themselves.

Later Wednesday, Kingston made it clear the changes that came into effect March 31 affected processing plants like Maple Leaf, while the leaked cabinet memo seemed to be directed at procedures at slaughterhouses - which have not changed for the time being.

Still, Kingston said the new procedures at processing plants mean inspectors, who often have half a dozen plants to inspect, are being swamped with paperwork.

"You're racing from place to place doing the paperwork, and how much time does that realistically leave you to do inspection activities?" Kingston said.

"Even if your manager has the sense to tell you to use your discretion and judgment, if you think you want to take a quick stroll through the plant, you're often not going to have the time to do it anyway."

It was the Liberals in the late 1990s who slashed funding, cut hundreds of staff and merged food promotion and food protection into a single agency, said New Democrat MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis.

Organizations: Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Maple Leaf Foods, Conservatives Costco Wholesale Canada Ltd. Meat & Cheese Platters UPC 0 0000 10683 2

Geographic location: Canada, Maple Leaf, TORONTO Agri Northwest Territories Tuktoyaktuk Regina Ontario Saskatchewan Quebec

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