Nine confirmed cases of listeriosis have been reported in Ontario as part of an ongoing investigation linked to recalled plant-based refrigerated beverages, provincial health officials say.

On Monday, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) announced a recall affecting certain Silk and Great Value brands of oat and almond refrigerated beverages that may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, said that as of Monday, there have been five hospitalizations associated with this outbreak investigation.

Listeria monocytogenes is a type of bacteria that can cause listeriosis, a serious but rare illness with symptoms that may start suddenly and include vomiting, nausea, cramps, severe headache, constipation or fever. More severe illness may result in the brain infection meningitis and blood infection in newborns and older adults.

In recent years, about 134 cases of invasive listeriosis have been reported annually in the country, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). Of these, Public Health Ontario reported 75 cases in 2023, including 14 deaths. 

The recalled products were manufactured by Danone Canada and distributed nationally, the CFIA said.

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Stores across Canada are being told not to sell, serve or distribute 15 products from the Silk and Great Value brands, and anyone who has them in their fridge should not consume or use them.

Contaminated products are listed below, all in 1.89-litre packages with best-before dates up to and including Oct. 4, 2024, with specific universal product codes

  • Great Value Almond Beverage Unsweetened Original.
  • Great Value Almond Beverage Original.
  • Great Value Almond Beverage Vanilla.
  • Silk Almond and Coconut Unsweetened.
  • Silk Almond Original.
  • Silk Almond Dark Chocolate. 
  • Silk Almond Unsweetened.
  • Silk Almond Unsweetened Vanilla. 
  • Silk Coconut Original.

Doctor advises caution for high-risk groups

“I strongly advise the public, especially those at high risk for listeriosis, such as the elderly, pregnant women and those with weak immune systems, to make sure they do not consume these recalled products,” Moore said in a release.

Symptoms of invasive illness — when the bacteria spread beyond the intestines — usually start within two weeks after eating food contaminated with Listeria, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can be as long as 70 days, Public Health Ontario said. 

Electron micrograph of a Listeria bacterium in tissue.
An electron micrograph of a Listeria bacterium in tissue. The bacteria are tolerant of cold temperatures in a fridge. (Dr. Balasubr Swaminathan/Peggy Hayes/CDC)

Moore called on consumers to visit the CFIA’s website for a complete listing of all recalled products and to check back regularly, as there may be recalls of additional products as the investigation continues.

Consumers are reminded to check their fridges for the recalled products and if any are found, they should be immediately discarded or returned to the location where they were purchased. Do not consume any recalled products.

Careful disinfection needed in plants

Dr. Lori Burrows, a professor of biochemistry and biomedical sciences at McMaster University, said one of the “nasty things about listeria” is that the bacteria are tolerant of cold. 

“Once the products get contaminated and are kept in your fridge, the bacteria doesn’t die,” she said. “It will remain alive and then when you drink it, it will infect you.”

As Canada Research Chair in Microbe-Surface Interactions, Burrows studies studies bacterial growth, such as dental plaque. 

“Picture your teeth,” Burrows said. “There’s bacteria on your teeth and it’s next to impossible to remove all of them. So we scrape them off a couple times a day with a toothbrush, but they always grow back, right? And it’s the same kind of thing on these packaging lines and the tubing that they use to flow liquids from one place to another.”

Production and packaging facilities need to be carefully disinfected or bacteria can build up, particularly in cracks and crevices, she said.

Contamination with Listeria does not change the smell, taste or appearance of food.

Some higher-risk foods include:

  • Refrigerated smoked fish.
  • Raw or unpasteurized milk.
  • Soft and unpasteurized cheeses.
  • Ready-to-eat meats, such as pâté, deli meat and hot dogs.

In this outbreak, a Danone Canada spokesperson said the contaminated products were linked to a specific production line from a third-party manufacturer based in Ontario.

“We are deeply concerned about these reports and take this matter extremely seriously,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

“We continue to focus our immediate efforts on protecting our consumers with care through this swift recall, and conducting a thorough investigation with our third-party manufacturer.”

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