The first new policy on Listeria monocytogenes in Ready-to-Eat Foods since 2004 will take effect in Canada next April 1.

It represents another in the Government of Canada’s responses to the Weatherill Report, the independent inquiry into the 2008 Listeria outbreak that killed 23 mostly elderly Canadians out a total of 57 cases.

According to the 74-page policy document, published in both English and French, there are six major differences between the new and old versions.   They include:

  • New end-product compliance criteria have been developed that are similar to international standards.

  • The definitions of Ready-to-Eat foods in which the growth of L. monocytogenes can or cannot occur have been modified or developed.  The list of food products implicated in listeria outbreaks is updated.

  • The use “post-lethality” treatments and/or L. monocytogenes growth inhibitors is encouraged.

  • Detailed sampling from environmental to end product testing is mandated.

  • Environmental monitoring is required in all Ready-to-Eat food plants. 

  • Outreach, especially to institutions with high-risk populations, will be stepped up.

The new policy will apply to all Ready-to-Eat food sold in Canada, including both domestic and foreign production.  

It joint policy of Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and the Public Health Agency of Canada.  It is suppose to protect the health of Canadian consumers and provide guidance to both industry and regulatory agencies.

The source of the L. monocytogenes in the deadly 2008 outbreak was the Maple Leaf Foods RTE meats plant in Toronto.  

Canada has seen its national reported rate of listeriosis to 7.2 cases per million populations in 2008, up sharply from 2.3 cases per million in populations in 2000.  The spike in cases in 2008 was largely attributable to the Maple Leaf RTE meats outbreak and a separate Listeria outbreak stemming from cheese that sickened 38 and killed two.

“The foods implicated in major outbreaks of listeriosis worldwide are typically those in which L. monocytogenes is present or can grow to levels that could present a risk to consumers,” the new policy says.

At the international level, the Government of Canada recognized Codex and the Commission of European Communities have proposed “similar microbiological criteria for the verification and control of L. monocytogenes in RTE foods” for both protecting consumers and ensuring fair practices in food trade.

It says the “U.S. risk assessment” further supports the notion that RTE foods “differ in their ability to support growth and being linked to listeriosis.”

The new Listeria policy follows the independent report by Sheila Weatherill in July 2009, which included 57 recommendations to fix systemic failures in Canada’s food safety system.  

While the federal government promised to implement all the recommendations, critics say CFIA is still does not employ enough meat inspectors to meet the commitment.