Food Poisoning (Listeria)




Image Smoked Salmon by Mogens Petersen via Pixabay

We may expect to pay a high price for quality smoked salmon. But what if we get a little something more than we expected? Sometimes smoked salmon makes people come down with listeriosis, a type of food poisoning, and occasionally people even die from it. And that’s exactly what happened to people in three states after consuming Tasmanian smoked salmon in 2019. 

When the news broke on the 24th of July that two people had died, along with a third non-fatal case, after consuming Tasmanian smoked salmon [1], supermarket shelves emptied nationwide and people began asking questions. 


What is Listeria?

Listeriosis is an illness caused by the bacterium Listeria, which is most often found in chilled seafood, deli meats, soft cheeses, bagged salad leaves, and some fruits such as rockmelons. In healthy people, it generally only produces mild food-poisoning symptoms, but in vulnerable people like the elderly, those who are already sick, and pregnant women, it is life-threatening. 


What went wrong?

In the face of the Listeria announcement, the politicians immediately slipped into damage-control mode. The Minister for Primary Industries, Guy Barnett, stated that the Department had “investigated the matter. There has been no breach of the law, in terms of food safety and the production of salmon in Tasmania” [2]. Premier Will Hodgman said, "I'm advised that the investigations have determined there have been no breaches of national health standards by Tasmanian companies" [3]. Given that two people were dead and a third was unwell, it didn’t quite ring true. 

By the time the dust settled, it was revealed that the deaths occurred months earlier between 22 February and 7 June [4]. And intriguingly, Listeria had been detected in Tassal salmon in Queensland on 11 February, just 11 days before the first death [4]. 


Why wasn't the public warned about contaminated salmon?

When Listeria contamination was detected in the Tassal smoked salmon on February 11th, the public was not warned and the product was not recalled [4]. By unfortunate coincidence, February 11th was also just three days before Tassal posted its half-year results [5]. One can imagine that it may have been inconvenient to announce a food poisoning contaminant just days before announcing their best-ever half year, with a net profit after tax of $31.7 million [2]. To be fair, it is also possible that this was not the reason to withhold the recall and warning of what was to soon prove a lethal contaminant. 

In another unfortunate fluke of timing, February 11th was also just two weeks after Tassal’s CEO, Mark Ryan, dumped half his shares — half! — netting him a pre-tax windfall of more than $900k [6]. Just one day after this string of coincidences was announced in the Australian Financial Review, the Tassal share price tumbled by 7 percent [7]. 


What were the investigation's final findings?

Despite the early assertions by the Minister and Premier that the matter had been investigated, and the months that they had to do it before the news of the Listeria deaths went public, by August the investigation into the deaths linked to Tasmanian smoked salmon was still ongoing [8]. But it seems to have vanished after that. 

For us, there’s a giant elephant in the room and looks and smells conspicuously like a fish. The fact that smoked salmon is a breeding ground for Listeria has been known for many years [9]. According to a risk assessment background paper prepared jointly for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO), the Listeria bacterium:

  • is ubiquitous in food processing environments,
  • has the ability to grow at refrigeration temperatures, and
  • is relatively resistant to heating, acidic environments, elevated salt levels, and compounds used to inhibit foodborne microorganisms.

“Various surveys have indicated that this pathogenic microorganism occurs in smoked fish at a relatively high prevalence rate” [10]. So when it was identified in Tassal’s Queensland processing facility just days before one death and months before another, the timing suggests that the safety system failed. Listeria is an infectious agent and the fact that it wasn’t stopped from killing vulnerable Australians should be setting off alarm bells. We have a right to know what was the relationship between the contaminated batch, facility, and source, and the three cases? And how many more were made unwell that never made the news? Something went wrong, and you can’t just skip over the evidence of dead people. These were somebody’s grandparents, somebody’s mum or dad, brother or sister. And then there’s the financial questions… 



[Click here to go to Listeria References]