TORONTO — Fifteen years ago, a Canadian listeriosis outbreak struck one of the country’s top brands, killing as many as 23 infected for an astounding mortality rate of nearly 40 percent. This outbreak may have faded into the memories of most Canadians, but not to the people of Toronto’s Maple Leaf Foods.

They still remember, and each Aug.23, Maple Leaf Foods recognizes those sickened and those who died in Canada’s 2008 listeriosis outbreak.

Cold cuts from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto were the source of that deadly outbreak that was known for killing elderly Canadians across several provinces.

The deadliest food-borne disease outbreak in Canadian history resulted in a six- to eight-week product shortage when Maple Leaf shut down operations.

It is no surprise that the International Association for Food Protection, at its annual meeting being held in Toronto this week, would address the historic event. The session titled: “Foodborne Listeriosis in Canada, Are we there yet?” covered most of the bases. “Insights into Progress and Lessons Learned Since Our Infamous Deli-Meat Outbreak,” added if a subtitle was needed.

Heath Canada’s Marie Breton was the panel’s lead-off speaker, providing an in-depth look at her country’s past and future policies for controlling Listeria. She showed how two-thirds of Canada’s listeria policies that were in place by 2011 were in existence by 2008, the year when the listeriosis tragedy occurred.

Lynn McMullen from the University of Alberta at Edmonton said, “One size does not fit all” when considering Listeria and that researchers must consider both the transient and persistence of the pathogen’s strains.

In illustrating how difficult persistent Listeria can be, McMullens showed how Listeria remained in the cheese plant for some seven years. She pointed to the need for improved sanitation practices because of evidence that current procedures “are not enough.”

After the regulatory and research presentations, Randy Huffman from Maple Leaf Foods appeared to tell how the company became an adherent to a food safety culture in response to the deadly outbreak. He credits the company’s former chairman, who from the outset assured Canada their food safety system was among the world’s best. He also said Canada’s regulators were not to blame, just Maple Leaf Foods.

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