TORONTO - The Maple Leaf plant at the centre of last summer's deadly listeriosis outbreak wasn't properly recording the cleaning of its meat slicing equipment earlier in the year, federal inspection records reveal.
Twenty-two people across Canada died after eating Maple Leaf deli meats contaminated with Listeria -- products that were traced back to the Bartor Road processing plant.

Maple Leaf Foods (TSX:MFI) has said the most likely explanation for the Listeria contamination was an accumulation of bacteria deep within its meat slicing equipment.

Canadian Food Inspection Agency records for the facility, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, show on-site inspectors highlighted problems with the company's slicer sanitation processes some six months before the outbreak.

An inspector's verification worksheet from Feb. 11, 2008 notes he conducted a review of the slicing department sanitation and that monitoring was not being done properly between Jan. 2 and Feb. 8.

"It was observed that the cleanup verification sheets are only being completed for some of the slicing lines," he said in the report.

Maple Leaf spokeswoman Linda Smith said the equipment was being sanitized as required.

"The inspector's reports for last year showed some inadequacies in paperwork, processes that have been corrected, but that had nothing to do with the ongoing sanitization of our slicing equipment," Smith said Tuesday.

The reports also note several times when a check of Maple Leaf's sampling records indicated they were meeting requirements for testing for Listeria, among other bacteria.

The last such notation before the outbreak was on July 29, 2008, around the time health authorities became aware of an outbreak of listeriosis in Ontario. Public health officials advised the CFIA on Aug. 6, 2008 they suspected tainted food was the cause.

Maple Leaf president Michael McCain told a parliamentary subcommittee last week that Maple Leaf logged the results of its Listeria testing and had anyone analyzed the data, they might have noticed more frequent occurrences of the bacteria last May.

At the height of the Maple Leaf recall and listeriosis outbreak on Aug. 26, the inspector made an addendum to his Feb. 11 notes, writing that a supervisor told him the slicing equipment was indeed being sanitized, just that it was not being recorded for all lines.

Bob Kingston, head of the union representing inspectors, said the reports highlight a pressing concern for inspectors -- namely that they do not have enough time to do in-person observation of plant activities, instead having to just verify the company's own reports.

Kingston questioned the value of relying on sanitation records when problems with record keeping have already been identified.

"You've got a double failure here," he said. "The company fails to report yet you're supposed to rely on their memory. Then on top of that the in-person verification that was part of the system... you were never given the time to do."

Problems with record keeping are noted throughout the year's worth of documents.

An inspector wrote a non-compliance report on Aug. 3, 2007 about cooling logs for non-nitrate products. Those products have a greater potential for proliferation of bacteria if not heated to correct temperatures for a standard amount of time.

"The company's monitoring and verification procedures are not being implemented as per the company's written plan," the inspector wrote. "These deficiencies are considered major."

And on Dec. 6, 2007, an inspector noted more problems with sanitation records, though on Aug. 26 he added: "the issue did not appear to be food safety, but rather deficiencies in record keeping."

Another review of sanitation in the slicing department from March 13 noted condensation dripping from in smokehouses and water "heavily dripping" from ventilation ducts, pipes and the ceiling around a raw product scale.

On April 15 an inspector wrote that the company told him the ventilation system had not been switched over to reflect warmer weather, and that was the cause of the condensation.

Smith said none of the notations were related to Listeria and the plant continues to be inspected daily, weekly and monthly.
"Since August of '08 we have enhanced our food safety practice to reflect some of the best practices in North America," Smith said.

"All of the notations (in the reports) were quickly and appropriately addressed."