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Letter from the Editor: ‘Oh Canada’

I once worked in Seattle for a Canadian editor. I was always trying to gain insights from him about what Canadians really think. One morning I asked him about a public employee strike that had just started in British Columbia.

“How can you tell?” he asked, looking up at me only briefly.

Canadians are pretty much used to the fact that Americans have not a clue about what concerns them.  Mostly that’s because they know we don’t much care about them. We should, of course, but it would require paying attention to more than the celebrities and the eastern elites who pick the bubble gum that passes as our national news agenda.

This means what happens in Canada generally stays there. Three years ago, Canada went through a deadly Listeria outbreak that eventually ended with a 40 percent mortality rate. The death toll was 23 out of 57 confirmed cases across seven of Canada’s provinces.

The deaths of mostly elderly Canadians — the mean age was 75 — were stretched  out enough over 2008 to give the Listeria outbreak the feeling of something that just did not want to end.   One of Canada’s top businesses, Maple Leaf Foods, turned out to be responsible for the infections and deaths.

A Listeria “niche” had taken root in Maple Leaf’s processing plant in Toronto, which makes ready-to-eat meats.  Failure to keep meat slicers properly cleaned was a problem.

Canada was in an uproar.  The outbreak went unnoticed in the U.S. , especially in the middle of a Presidential election year.  Canada did something almost never done in the states — the government named an outsider to head an independent investigation.

Ready-to-eat meats are at least one of the products more commonly associated with Listeria outbreaks. Cantaloupes are frequently contaminated with Salmonella, but the current Listeria outbreak involving the melons may be a first.

This Listeria outbreak, with victims in at least 15 states, is getting all kinds of American media attention with the number of confirmed cases now exceeding the toll Canada in 2008.  

And with only an exception or two, the only places you are going to find those who’ve been infected are a hospital or morgue.  The number of confirmed deaths is certain to grow.  The 40 percent mortality rate experienced in Canada means there could be at least 24 deaths in this country’s outbreak, based on the total number of cases reported to date, which is 61.

Jensen Farms, the source of the contaminated cantaloupe that recalled its product on Sept. 14, and Frontera Produce, distributor of the Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupes, which claims to have begun recall efforts as early as Sept. 12, are targets of the ongoing U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigation.   

For about 48 hours before the Jensen Farms recall was announced, cantaloupes from the entire Rocky Ford growing area were implicated in the outbreak. Rocky Ford cantaloupes are grown along almost 200 miles of the Arkansas River in southeastern Colorado.

If investigators had been only a little swifter on the trace back, Jensen Farms might have been identified first, before there had to be a warning about all Rocky Ford cantaloupes. Any lessons learned in that regard might help food safety in the future, while saving the produce industry a boatload of money.

It will be interesting to see if Americans become as an angry about elderly people dying from eating cantaloupes as Canadians did over ready-to-eat meats.  

Will we demand an outsider be named to conduct an independent investigation?

Will we do anything to recognize the equivalent of a bus full of deaths?

This time it happened right here, not in Canada — wherever that is.

© Food Safety News
  • Danae in Maryland

    Really good point made in the article. The issue reaches farther than just our ignorance of Canada. It does seem like American News Media bombards us with so much information that we cannot figure out what is important. The magnitude of information makes it easy to forget the lessons we should be learning. It also depersonalizes the impact and implications of current events so that we are desensitized when we should embrace and learn. Recently, I personally felt that I needed a new perspective, so I have started watching BBC News as an effort to see current events from a perspective coming from outside the US. It is interesting to see world current events from another perspective, and to see the US current events boiled down to only the items that are interesting to the rest of the world. I also occasionally read the Shanghai Daily (available in English) for a non-western perspective. Technology makes it all possible, and we Americans have so much freedom to access it at will! It is a shame to sit and be “fed” one single perspective on current events.