TORONTO – A nationwide outbreak of listeriosis that has claimed at least eight lives and been linked to bacteria found in meats made by Maple Leaf Foods is “an outrageous situation” that never should have happened, says a national consumer advocacy group.

Eleanor Friedland, vice-president of the Consumers Council of Canada, said Thursday she doesn’t believe the federal government when it says consumer safety is a priority.

“If that’s the case, how come (so many) people have died and we don’t know how many more will be showing symptoms?” Friedland said.

“The ball fell through and consumer confidence is right down the tubes, with respect to government and companies like Maple Leaf. It’s absolutely outrageous.”

Friedland’s comments came on a day that saw the number of deaths conclusively blamed on the outbreak jump to eight from five, and included a funeral for an eastern Ontario woman whose sudden death Monday is being blamed by family members on listeriosis.

Frances Clark, 89, was remembered Thursday as being “full of fun” by her friend Shirley Sutton following a funeral in the town of Madoc, Ont., that was attended by some 60 people.

Family members have said Clark, who suffered a separated shoulder in a fall last month, spent time in a hospital and a nursing home before falling ill.

Reports say both institutions served recalled Maple Leaf meat products, but the family is still waiting to hear from medical officials whether Clark’s case was part of the nationwide outbreak.

Friedland called on the federal government to ramp up inspections and for municipal and provincial governments to bully Ottawa into paying attention to the matter, which she said she plans to make a major election issue should Canada head for a fall vote.

“It’s affecting more and more people than you can possibly imagine,” Friedland said, adding she has heard from many concerned citizens in the wake of the outbreak and recalls of Maple Leaf products.

“School lunches are going to have to be re-thought, hospitals, cafeteria – this is a major, a major, consumer issue.”

She also demanded an answer for how Maple Leaf foods came to be contaminated with Listeria in the first place, adding that she would not accept company president Michael McCain saying the root of contamination may never be traced.

“It’s nonsense. They have to find out what caused this so that it can never happen again,” Friedland said. “If they don’t find out, how do I know that next month it’s not going to happen again? Or with some other products? More care has to be put into how our food is prepared.”

Late Wednesday, Sobeys Inc. voluntarily recalled a variety of cooked ham and salami sandwiches sold at Sobeys, Foodland and IGA stores across Ontario.

The items, which carry “packed on” dates up to and including Aug. 24, contained meat that was recalled by Maple Leaf Foods the very same day, when it pulled all items produced at a Toronto facility linked to a nationwide listeriosis outbreak.

On Wednesday, Costco Wholesale Canada also recalled two types of meat platters sold at its warehouses under the Kirkland Signature brand with best-before dates up to and including Aug. 28.

Sobeys spokesman Andrew Walker said the affected sandwiches were prepared and sold prior to the expanded recall and were pulled immediately following word from Maple Leaf.

He deferred to the CFIA questions on why there was a three-day lapse before Wednesday’s recall, saying Sobeys follows the agency’s guidance – but reiterated that the affected products were removed on Sunday.

“Because we knew we had made those products, we had removed them from sale when the recall was initiated,” Walker said.

“We executed the recall, we did it effectively, efficiently and the products that are now being recalled were prepared and sold prior to the recall.”

Ron Damiane, a spokesman for Costco, said all products included in the Maple Leaf recall were pulled on Monday, including the deli platters, and customers who had bought affected products were notified by phone.

That’s standard procedure for recalls, Damiane said: Costco requires membership to shop at its warehouses and tracks the purchases of its members, allowing the retailer to contact affected customers in the event of a recall.

“If there’s a problem with a product, we pull the product off the floor and begin calling our customers, and typically within 24 hours everyone’s been called,” Damiane said.

Earlier this week, various products containing affected Maple Leaf meats were recalled, including some Mac’s and Safeway sandwiches in western Canada, and some Atlantic Prepared Foods Ltd. and Metro Ontario Inc. sandwich products in the Maritimes and Ontario.

Tests have linked Maple Leaf’s Toronto plant to a nationwide outbreak of listeriosis that is known to have claimed the lives of eight people; seven other deaths with links to the outbreak remain under investigation.

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