Listeria Outbreak and Lawsuits Highlight Risks/Misunderstandings of Food Safety System

by John McKiggan

Maple Leaf Foods Recall

Last week Maple Leaf Foods announced a voluntary recall of meat products produced at their packing plant in Toronto, Ontario as a result of several cases of illness and death linked to food products contaminated with Listeriosis.

Media Frenzy

The outbreak and recall has received a considerable amount of attention from the media. In fact, it would be an understatement to describe the reaction as a “frenzy”.

Several Lawsuits Filed

Not surprisingly this week saw at least 5 class actions filed on behalf of people who suffered illness, death, mental distress or financial loss as a result of the tainted meat recall.

Recall to Cost Millions

Maple Leaf Foods predicted that the recall would cost the company $20 million dollars.

Stock prices have “plunged” hitting record lows in less than a week.

Risks Not Explained

The shock and fear expressed by the public as a result of this recall has served to highlight the risks inherent in our food safety system. Unfortunately I have not seen a great deal of media coverage explaining the risks to the public as a result of this outbreak.

Fortunately, the general public, as a whole, has little risk of contracting any serious illness or suffering a fatality as a result of contracting listeriosis.

Unfortunately, the persons who are most likely to contract the disease, and suffer serious illness or death, are those members of society who are most vulnerable; the very young, the elderly, those who are sick or frail, and pregnant women.

What is Listeria?

Listeria is a bacteria. It is commonly found in soil, vegetation, animal feed and in feces.

What are the Symptoms?

Infants, the elderly and those who are already sick or frail are most susceptible to becoming ill after exposure to listeria. Symptoms include vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, headache and fever. The disease is often misdiagnosed as the flu.

How Long Before Symptoms Appear?

Symptoms usually appear within 2 days to a week after consuming food contaminated with listeria. However, the bacteria can colonize for up to 30 days before symptoms appear.


The symptoms can be treated effective through the use of antibiotics. However, if symptoms are not treated promptly they can develop into more serious problems like septicemia ( blood infection) or meningitis or encephalitis (brain infections).

I have included a link to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s Listeria site for more information.

Maple Leaf Food’s Response

From a public relations standpoint, I have to applaud Maple Leaf Food’s response to the recall. The CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, Michael McCain, immediately issued a public apology (no doubt something the company lawyers urged him not to do).

Although the apology may slightly increase the risk that Maple Leaf Foods will be found legally liable for losses suffered as a result of the outbreak, I think it will do a great deal to increase the public’s confidence in Maple Leaf Foods and limit the number of people who will consider suing the company if they haven’t suffered a catastrophic illness or lost a love one.

I expect the apology will also do a great deal to protect the value of Maple Leaf shares in the long run. In fact it appears that the apology is already having a positive effect. Maple Leaf’s stock prices rose today.

The value of an apology cannot be underestimated. I posted about this issue a few months ago on my other blog, Halifax Medical Malpractise Lawyer Blog, Doctors: Say “I’m sorry” and Don’t get Sued! The New York Times reported on a study that found that doctors who apologized for their mistakes get sued far less often than doctors who refuse to admit that they have done anything wrong.

This listeria outbreak is truly a tragedy. My sympathies are with all of those who have lost loved ones as a result of this totally preventable illness. Time will tell if Maple Leaf Food’s conduct in not preventing the outbreak will result in the company being held legally liable.

In the mean time, the public needs to educate itself about the risks inherent in our food safety system.

I have been representing victims of serious personal injuries for 18 years. If you or a family member have suffered a serious injury and have questions about your rights, you can contact me through this blog, or by visiting my website or by calling me toll free at 1-877-423-2050.

One Response to “Listeria Outbreak and Lawsuits Highlight Risks/Misunderstandings of Food Safety System”

August 28, 2008 at 1:23 pm, Dana Phillip Doiron said:

I am a consultant in issues management and crisis communications. I agree with your comments regarding apologies (and note that many jurisdictions have added laws to facilitate offering an apology without triggering legal liability.

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