Salmon and trout processor at centre of Danish listeria death scandal to reopen factory

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Danish food detective work traced fatal listeria outbreak back to M.V.Wool – one of Estonia’s largest fish producers – using DNA sequence-based subtyping.

In March 2019, SalmonBusiness reported that the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration traced an outbreak of listeriosis from three years ago to its source.

An official inspection at a Danish wholesaler in March 2019 was conducted and smoked trout and salmon from the Estonian producer M.V. Wool were sampled. Of 65 samples from 13 lots, a total of 49 positive samples for listeria monocytogenes were found, covering 12 different lots.

Deaths
In Denmark, the outbreak included nine people between the ages of aged 52-90 who, since 2016, have become ill with the same type of listeria, including two people who died in 2019.

M.V.Wool disputed the Danish authorities findings at the time, saying that there had been a “violation of temperature flow in Denmark”.

M.V.Wool closed the plant for sterilisation in mid-October 2019, however, a second outbreak was reported a month later, leading to speculation the factory could be shut down. The Veterinary and Food Board (VTA) then issued an injunction to suspend operations in both of M.V.Wool’s plants, in Harku and Vihterpalu. The injunction included production, mediation, storage, import of raw materials and export of raw material and goods.

Mati Vetevool. Screenshot; Äripäev/Youtube

“Comes in from the fish farm”
M.V.Wool factory owner and board chairman Mati Vetevool has categorically denied that the dangerous bacteria came from his factory: “I absolutely do not agree that this bacteria is our bacteria,” Vetevool said. “It comes in from the fish farm; it hasn’t developed here. We can also end up stuck with a strain originating from a fish farm. Every night, our fish plant is thoroughly washed, and we destroy absolutely all bacteria in the cleaning process. It’s not possible that we are poisoning anyone. Nothing of the sort is possible — this is simply sheer libel,” he told Err.

However, in December, the VTA wrote in a press release, that as a result of the sequencing, “it became clear last night that in both cases it was the strain ST1247 that caused the international listeria outbreak. On 23 October, the Veterinary and Food Board took samples from M.V.Wool’s Harku factory and on 30 October from the M.V.Wool factory in Vihterpalu and detected the listeria in the factories.

“This bacterial strain has so far only been found in M.V.Wool and company-related production. The bacterium was found only a few days after the factory had undergone extensive cleaning. This result indicates that M.V.Wool’s measures to control the bacterium have not been sufficient,” the VTA wrote.

No actual threat
However, in December, a spokesperson for MV. Wool told SalmonBusiness information that was at odds with the authority’s findings.

“At the food safety roundtable held in the Estonian Ministry of Rural Affairs on 29 October, both the Health Board and the Veterinary and Food Board confirmed the absence of registered listeriosis cases caused by ST1247 in Estonia in 2019. It indicates that the measures taken by M.V.Wool for containing the outbreak (2018) were appropriate. Consequently, no actual threat from ST1247 to people’s health and lives can be observed.

“As it’s commonly known, the tolerance level for the bacteria has been set by the EU at 100 units per gram (Lm (cfu/g)) and M.V.Wool’s products have never exceeded this threshold. M.V.Wool’s fish products have always conformed with the food safety requirements set by the European Union, and any harmful effect of these products on people’s health is out of the question.”

SalmonBusiness has sent a follow up to this response.

Relaunch
Now, according to Err, M.V.Wool has announced that 113 surface samples taken at the company’s Vihterpalu plant were clean and that the company is ready to relaunch the plant on January 2. However, it has not yet been granted permission to restart production.

“From November 26 through December 11, M.V.Wool carried out in-depth cleaning at its Vihterpalu plant,” M.V.Wool supervisory board chairman Meelis Vetevool said in a press release. “The Veterinary and Food Board (VTA) then took 93 surface samples in the framework of national supervision, which were analyzed at three accredited laboratories and which all turned out to be free from Listeria.”

“This affirms the effectiveness of the in-depth cleaning, and M.V.Wool is ready to relaunch the Vihterpalu plant from January 2, 2020, as the condition prescribed in the injunction made by the VTA has been fulfilled.”

SalmonBusiness has contacted M.V.Wool to find out if it’s planning on recommencing salmon and/or trout production.