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Cheesemongers struggle

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One death and 28 cases of listeriosis linked to the province-wide outbreak of listeria in semi-pasturized and raw-milk cheeses has forced fromageries to discard large quantities of potentially uncontaminated stock.

Though cases of listeriosis – a bacterial disease that can lie dormant in patients for up to 70 days without being noticed – are found every year in Quebec, Marie-Claude Gagnon, a representative for the Quebec Ministry of Health and Public Safety, stressed the gravity of the current situation.

“It is a really serious case. We have one death related to the outbreak…. For now we hope that we are not increasing in cases, but we must be careful what exactly to predict,” said Gagnon.

Quebec’s Ministry of Agriculture (MAPAQ) introduced temporary screening measures on September 6 to control the spread of the contamination, which is unrelated to a listeria scare that triggered recent recalls of Maple Leaf meat products. The provincial crisis has led to the immediate disposal of thousands of dollars worth of products for manufacturers and small retailers alike.

According to MAPAQ’s press release, 32 of the 43 processing plants inspected were deemed safe to continue selling products in retail counters, while the results of nine others are still pending.

Clement Falardeau, a communications representative for MAPAQ, explained that two of Quebec’s major manufacturers, Les Fromagiers de la Table Ronde and Fromagerie Médard, were identified as probable sources for the outbreak, although MAPAQ has yet to identify a link between the two sites.

“These locations are quite far apart from one another,” Falardeau said. “This makes us wonder why the same kind of bacteria was found in those two places.”

Ronald Alary, a producer at Les Fromagiers de la Table Ronde, expressed what he feels is a common sense of frustration throughout the industry.

“[MAPAQ] were sure that we were the ones who had contaminated the whole province, but they are not so sure anymore,” Alary said. “I don’t think they know where it is coming from.”

According to Alary, the prolongation of the investigation places a serious economic strain on many businesses, estimating his own future losses at $100,000.

“If it lasts much longer, I know some smaller fromageries will not make it through the crisis,” he said. “Nobody will reimburse us, and there is no insurance. We have already had to put some people on unemployment.”

But Falardeau did not see reimbursement for manufacturers and small businesses as a feasible option.

“Our goal was to protect public health,” he said, citing Minister of Agriculture Laurent Lessard, who declared that the government would not be an insurance company. “There is still discussion of what could be done. It might not be a refund, but of course we will help the industry as much as we can through promotions and any other means possible,” Falardeau added.

Yet Danie Blais of La Fromagerie Hamel and several other cheesemongers believe that there has been a lack of communication between the government and local retailers.

“All the rules seem to be changing from store-to-store. Everyone is cleaning, but not the same way,” said Blais. Along with ten other fromageries from around Montreal, Blais has formed a collective to appeal to the government for more standardized criteria and some form of monetary compensation. Blais’ Jean Talon location has been forced to discard 2,500 kg of cheese, resulting in losses of well over $100,000.

Gil Goureonays, the owner of Montreal’s La Fromagerie Atwater, calculated his sales have dropped by 40 per cent within the past week.

“The Quebec Health Board is not dealing with the situation appropriately,” he said. “We [retailers] are not getting information.”

Maxime Arseneau, agriculture critic for the Parti-Quebecois, criticized the government for hurting the agriculture sector by not refunding business owners.

“Their reluctance to reimburse the businesses is irresponsible,” Arsenault said. “With the mad cow crisis, a lot of money was spent to support farmers. The same thing should be done now.”

Though MAPAQ has been financing most of the investigation, Falardeau noted that eventually manufacturers will be expected to conduct their own inspections.

Falardeau said that losses at this stage were unavoidable.

“The fact is there was nothing else the [MAPAQ] could do,” he said. “To take each cheese in for analysis would have taken a lot of time, and the products would not have been good for consumption by the time we finished. It was not practical and could not have been very conclusive.”