CHARLOTTETOWN, Prince Edward Island — U.S. food inspectors have rejected an $18,000 shipment of frozen Prince Edward Island lobster because it contained listeria bacteria, but a spokesman for the island’s fish-packing industry says it could be a form of harassment of Canadian imports.
Alan Baker of the P.E.I. Seafood Processors Association suggested Thursday that the return of the shipment to the island may have been prompted by the ongoing lobster trade disputes between the two countries.
“There is no domestic processed lobster market in the United States, so they can harass us all they want,” he said. “Listeria has been here since time immemorial, but since a test was only developed for it in 1988, there are still no minimum standards.”
The shipment, from Keeping and MacKay Ltd. in Beach Point, was found to contain the bacteria after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in Boston inspected it in April. A second P.E.I. shipment, from the former Murray Harbor Seafoods Ltd., has been impounded for inspection.
Listeria is a type of naturally occurring bacteria that occasionally causes food-poisoning symptoms in the elderly, ill or unborn.
The bacteria are killed by cooking but, because frozen lobster is already cooked, it can pose special problems.
When the test for the bacteria was developed in 1988, several processing plants in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island were found to have the bacteria present.
But the listeria-containing lobster at that time was allowed to go to market, and no illnesses were reported.
In fact, listeria is so common that an expert has said few food products on any supermarket shelf are free of it. And it is commonly found, particularly in water.
People are ingesting listeria all the time but relatively few become ill with it, Halifax disease specialist Walter Schlech said in 1988.
“If you were carefully sampling products of all classes, whether it’s seafoods, meats, prepared meats, vegetable materials … essentially you’d have to empty out the supermarkets because you would find listeria in every supermarket in Canada.”
But the few who catch listeriosis can become seriously ill. People whose immune defenses are already low usually develop a meningitis — inflammation of the lining of the brain. Pregnant women can come down with a flulike illness which can cause miscarriage, stillbirth or infection of the unborn baby.
Baker said the U.S. inspectors’ finding does not mean there is any problem with island lobster processing.
“Listeria is a bacteria that, like countless other bacteria, is impossible to eradicate. Although some listeria has been found, it doesn’t mean that it came from the plant. It could just as easily have been contaminated during inspection,” he said.
Baker said processing plants in Canada are among the best in the world, especially after stringent procedures were drawn up following the 1988 contamination.
“It’s just something that’s impossible to get rid of entirely,” he said.