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Harper names head of listeriosis investigation

The former CEO of Edmonton’s Capital Health region will head up Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s long-promised inquiry into last summer’s listeriosis outbreak in Canadian-made lunch meats.

Sheila Weatherill, now an associate member of the University of Alberta’s faculty of nursing and vice-chair of Edmonton-based power company Epcor’s board of directors, is to look at the “events, circumstances and factors” that contributed to the outbreak.

Her investigation will also probe the “efficiency and effectiveness of the response of federal organizations and their food safety system partners, in terms of prevention, product recalls, collaboration and communication.”

The outbreak last August involved a specific listeria strain in prepared meats that sickened 56 people in seven provinces, mostly in Ontario, and was tracked to a Maple Leaf Foods processing plant in Toronto.

Among those 56 cases, as of Dec. 10, 2008, the listeria strain in question has been ruled to be the “underlying or contributing cause” in the deaths of 20 people.

Maple Leaf responded by launching a major and well-publicized product recall that crossed over into other food brands using product from the facility. The Toronto plant, which was shut down Aug. 20, is now in limited production.

The incubation period for the illness has passed, and no new cases of listeriosis linked to the outbreak have occurred in at least three months.

Recommendations

Harper, in September, laid out the terms of reference for an investigation into the outbreak, under which Weatherill is also expected to “make recommendations, based on lessons learned from that event and from other countries in terms of best practices, as to what can be done to enhance both the prevention of a similar outbreak occurrence in the future and the removal of contaminated products from the food supply.”

The terms of reference for Weatherill’s investigation also require her not to draw any conclusion or recommendation regarding the “civil or criminal liability of any person or organization” related to the outbreak.

Observers of the outbreak and the government’s response have noted for weeks until now that Harper hadn’t yet named an independent investigator as pledged. That spurred concerns that an investigator, when named, would miss the March 15, 2009 deadline set in the terms of reference back in September.

Weatherill is required to submit her report to federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz by July 20 this year.

“I am confident that Sheila Weatherill has the expertise required to independently examine the factors that contributed to the listeriosis outbreak and make recommendations on how to prevent a similar occurrence in the future,” Harper said.

But Weatherill — an Order of Canada member who from 2003 to 2006 was on the Women’s Executive Network’s annual list of Canada’s 100 most powerful women — will not take questions in the meantime. Harper’s release Tuesday specifically said she is “unavailable for public comment until her report is completed.”

Maple Leaf last month began negotiating a $25 million settlement to halt several proposed class-action lawsuits related to the outbreak. The company also booked a net loss of nearly $13 million in its quarter ending Sept. 30, partly on $42.9 million in costs related to product recalls and company restructuring.

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