Canadian meat company Siena Foods is facing a class action lawsuit over its recent recalls of listeria-infected deli meats. The suit, filed Monday, alleges that Siena knew of the food's "potential toxicity" but failed to warn consumers.
The suit concerns four recent recalls of Sienna deli meats, beginning in December and continuing through last week. The filing comes just a day after the Ontario Ministry of Health said five listeriosis-caused deaths were not related to the recalled Siena meat.
Fourteen Ontario residents have been diagnosed with listeriosis this year alone, with two cases definitively linked to recalled Siena meat. However, Ministry of Health spokesman Andrew Morrison told the Toronto Star that "preliminary indications" show that the meat is not linked to any of deaths from the disease.
Tony Merchant isn't buying it. The high-profile plaintiffs' lawyer knows a bit about listeriosis himself. His firm -- the Merchant Law Group -- led a successful class action against Maple Leaf, another Canadian food producer, after the company recalled 243 types of prepackaged meats. That recall followed an August 2008 listeria outbreak that infected dozens of people and killed at least 12.
"When the Maple Leaf situation was emerging, there was that same indecision," Merchant said, referring to Ontario's announcement that the recent illnesses were not caused by Siena products. "Then there was a change of view that it was Maple Leaf-related."
Siena plagued by recalls
Either way, Siena doesn't have a great track record. The company recalled its cacciatore salami in December after it tested positive for listeria. It recalled its cotto cooked ham on Thursday, and on Friday the government expanded that recall to include coppa and prosciuttini cured meats.
Merchant has been contacted by dozens of potential plaintiffs already, and told the Star that he expects the case to "snowball." Merchant said that business owners would likely join the suit if they have suffered financial harm as a result of the recall.
Canada's food inspection process has come under scrutiny following the recalls. The food inspectors' union claims Canadian facilities are typically inspected after 16 hours of operation, compared with the 12-hour increments mandated in the United States.
The Canadian government switched to 12-hour shifts after complaints from south of the border, according to the union. A leaked union memo tends to confirm that account, showing that union members have been working overtime since November to meet the 12-hour policy.
Listeria is rare but deadly; the overt form of the disease carries a 25 percent mortality rate (versus one percent for salmonella). Listeria is especially dangerous because infected foods may not look or smell contaminated. Symptoms of listeriosis include high fever, severe headache, neck stiffness, and nausea. Pregnant women should be especially vigilant; they often experience mild symptoms but the bacteria can cause premature or stillbirth.
The infected Siena meats were not sold directly to consumers until January 11, 2010. However, consumers who bought ham from a deli counter and are unsure of the brand should check with the store to see if their product is contaminated.