December 16, 2005
SOUTH Australia’s deadly listeria crisis has exposed a rift in state Government ranks, with one senior minister suggesting that a “zero tolerance” policy on food contamination may be “too rigorous” on meat producers.
Two patients have died in the state’s public hospitals in recent weeks after an outbreak of listeria poisoning that has been linked to meat from local producer Conroy’s Smallgoods, which has accused the Rann Government of overreacting by recalling its entire ready-to-eat product range.
Equipment and products from Conroy’s Adelaide plant tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes, the same listeria strain found in one of the patients who died in Royal Adelaide Hospital in October.
Agriculture, Food and Fisheries Minister Rory McEwen told The Australian yesterday that zero tolerance may be heavy-handed because listeria was “ubiquitous” and was “always being introduced into processing areas”.
Mr McEwen said that while “zero tolerance in relation to this bug is the national standard”, he would welcome a debate “about whether that standard is actually achievable”.
“We must learn from events such as this, in terms of quality assurance. We mustn’t set a standard so high that it’s not achievable.”
He said Conroy’s had been given “a clean bill of health” by government and independent audits, but had still succumbed to listeria.
“It gets back to the problem that some of this is actually beyond their control. Every time they bring meat into the place, they’re bringing the bug in — you could actually satisfy an audit today, and tomorrow find yourself in difficulty. You’re introducing it all the time. This ubiquitous bug is in everything.”
A conservative independent, Mr McEwen joined the Rann Labor Government after being guaranteed a frontbench position.
However, state Health Minister John Hill was unrepentant and denied the Government’s actions were heavy-handed.
He said it was “the responsibility of companies to ensure their food products don’t have Listeria monocytogenes — that’s their duty, that’s what the food standards say”.
Conroy’s has been ordered to recall all ready-to-eat products until the outbreak is contained. The embattled company brought in an independent microbiologist yesterday to test its products in an attempt to prove that all but its corned beef and ham steaks were listeria-free.
Pat Conroy, the joint general manager of the family-owned business, said he believed the Government had been “over-zealous” in its wide-reaching product recall, saying “they have overreacted to this problem”.
However, he said he was not considering legal action “at this stage”.
Mr Hill hit back, saying it was “particularly insensitive” to accuse the Government of heavy-handedness, calling on Mr Conroy to “bear in mind the feelings of the families of those who have died, perhaps as a result of eating material which has this bug in it”.
“There was a bug found in their equipment and in some of their meat that we know can kill people and cause the abortion of unborn children,” he said.
“I am sympathetic to the workers who have lost their jobs, but our prime motive is to maintain public health … I’m very confident that the decision that was made was the correct decision.”