VTA ruling shows Listeria rife at M.V.Wool for years

M.V.Wool products in a supermarket.
M.V.Wool products in a supermarket. Source: ERR

A 32-page document made available to ERR on Tuesday shows that traces of the most virulent strain of Listeria, ST1247 were present within fish-processing company M.V.Wool's facilities, processes and products as early as two years ago.

The document, issued by the Veterinary and Food Board (VTA), details precepts and action taken against fish processing company M.V.Wool in the aftermath of Listeria bacteria strains found in the company's products.

As reported on ERR News, Tallinn Administrative Court was due to rule on the company's request for a temporary injunction, rather than the total shutdown and destruction of its stock, on Tuesday.

The strain, ST1247, was first detected in 15 instances in five European nations in March this year, with information passed on via a rapid alert system, ERR reports.

ST1247 was additionally discovered in M.V.Wool products a total of 35 times during sample tests conducted by the VTA, according to a precept issued to the company.

Following the information of the findings first coming to light on March 8, the VTA began to monitor M.V.Wool production, obliging it to take samples from each batch before being sent to stores from March 13.

The first on-site inspection of the company's Harku production plant took place five days later, with samples taken from products, production areas and the surrounding environment.

Positive samples containing ST1247 from a slicing machine and cold-smoked rainbow trout products were obtained.

A total of 18 more positive samples have been found in the Harku plant since then, in either products or raw materials, as well as eight positive identifications from six samples taken at its Vihterpalu factory.

Samples taken from M.V.Wool products on sale in various supermarkets also were found to contain Listeria.

The ST1247 sample finds break down as follows:

Harku site (both on-site and found on-sale):

March 18: Cold-smoked trout fillet slices found on-site together with two positive identifications on slicer conveyor belt.

Jun. 20: Strains found in in-stock sliced, cold-smoked salmon.

June 26: Strains found in chopped and salted salmon or trout.

Jul 4: Samples from chopped salmon contained Listeria strains (taken from Lasnamäe Maksimarket).

Aug 2: Strains found in sliced ​​cold-smoked trout, cold smoked salmon, sliced ​​salted trout, all from Maxima supermarket (Maxima later withdrew all M.V.Wool products from its shelves-ed.).

Aug. 13: Salted rainbow trout, cold-smoked salmon affected (both from Kristiine Prisma).

Oct. 1: Sliced ​​trout (on-site).

Oct. 23: Salted salmon (on-site), skinning machine and other on-site equipment, raw fish-farm trout (internally and externally).

Vihterpalu site

Oct. 9: Hot-smoked salmon strips (ST551 strain in this case), gutting cutting board, smoked fish cooler stairwell (all on-site). 

Oct. 30: Cold smoked herring fillet, smoked fish storage room, smokehouse stairwell, other on-site locations, equipment, surfaces and floors.

Nov. 28: Listeria found in cold-smoked herring fillet and various surfaces.

The strain found in the hot smoked salmon on Oct. 9 was particularly noteworthy since the preparation method of heat treatment should destroy Listeria bacteria (the bacteria are largely impervious to low temperatures).

The VTA has issued eight precepts to M.V.Wool since March, and drawn the company's attention to contamination at Vihterpalu three times.

The VTA also ordered M.V. Wool to withdraw or recall non-compliant products manufactured at its plants; the company had previously been selling products which had not met food safety requirements and should not have gone to market, is is reported.

On Oct. 23 the VTA issued an injunction to the Vihterpalu production plant, ordering all salted, cold- and hot-smoked raw materials and products to not to be heat-treated, with the packaging to undergo sampling before being put on sale. The results of the sample taken from each batch had to be submitted in tabular form to the authority.

Confirming ST1247 strain finds

The oldest sample was taken from a cold-smoked salmon sample sliced ​​on Nov.15, 2017, which was sequenced on Oct. 2 during a monitoring procedure that began in March this year. 

In other words, the ST1247 strains had likely been propagating at the company for over two years down to the present.

In addition, strains ST121 and ST18 were also identified from raw trout. No ST1247 strains have been identified in the company's fresh fish products.

The ST1247 strain identified from samples taken as part of the company's own control plan came from cold-smoked salmon and environmental samples sliced ​​on June 20, as well as salted rainbow trout sample provided by a member of the public on March 20, ERR reports.

In total, 35 cases identified with the strain ST1247 have been linked to MV Wool products and production equipment and environment.

Sterilization of Harku plant had no effect

Only in mid-October did the company company halt operations to sterilize the Harku plant, and, following the positive samples from hot-smoked salmon strips, and from the cutting board and gutter at the Vihterpalu factory on 18-20, M.V.Wool also shortened the shelf life of some of its products and opted to stop producing smoked salmon and trout from Oct. 24.

The VTA requests the closure of MV Wool's factories, on the grounds that the company has to date not done enough to eradicate ST1247 strains from its production. 

Positive listeria samples were also taken after the sterilization process, at both production units in October.

The samples show that the ST1247 strain was found the company's production processes, not in the raw material (though other strains have been found in the raw material, namely ST121 and ST18). 

M.V.Wool CEO Mati Vetevool had previously blamed raw materials imported from Finland for the most recent, post-sterilization outbreak.

The risk remained of cross-contamination lies between the company's two production units, as raw materials, packaging, finished goods and other items moved between the two plants.

According to earlier reports, Listeria strains linked with M.V.Wool were responsible for the deaths of two people in Estonia and several more Europe-wide.

Former rural affairs minister Mart Järvik was charged with interfering with the VTA's work in the case, as well as making inconsistent statements about when he first became aware of the issue at M.V.Wool; Järvik said he first heard about the cases via the ministry's internal information system in mid-August. However, ministry records show he had attended a meeting at M.V.Wool where Listeria had been discussed as early as two months before that.

The original ERR article in Estonian, including a link to the VTA's precept, is here.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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