An Alberta beef processing plant has been shut down indefinitely as federal investigators continue to trace the effects of an E. coli outbreak, one that sickened at least four people in the province.
XL Foods’ plant in Brooks, Alta., was shut down Thursday after the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said “ several deficiencies” had not been “completely corrected” since the recall began earlier this month. It now includes ground beef from hundreds of products, as well as steaks sold at an Edmonton Costco store.
Alberta Health Services is investigating nine illnesses tied to E. coli, but only four have been definitively tied to a food source: the steaks. The CFIA has said both the steaks and recalled ground beef are linked to XL Foods’ plant, though it’s not clear where along the supply line the steaks were contaminated. The CFIA has no reported illnesses in other provinces.
The recalls and illnesses come after a slaughter on Aug. 23, and production on Aug. 24, Aug. 27, Aug. 28, Aug. 29 and Sept. 5, 2012. But officials have faced questions from both Alberta Premier Alison Redford and federal New Democrats on why the first recall and public notice was not issued until Sept. 16.
CFIA Chief Food Safety Officer Brian Evans defended the decision, saying initial tests revealed only what were thought to be isolated cases, none of which had hit store shelves. Another flag was raised on Sept. 12, which led to a broad investigation beginning Sept. 13, and a recall three days later.
Still, it took more than three weeks from slaughter to recall, and over a week from when products hit store shelves, for any public notice to be issued.
“Our actions were and continue to be guided by science-based evidence and a commitment to public health,” Dr. Evans said Friday morning. “…I believe we’ve acted responsibly once we had evidence that’s suggestive [of an outbreak].”
The XL Foods plant will be closed, with all the meat currently under CFIA “detention,” until XL Foods officials “have demonstrated that they have fully implemented CFIA’s required corrective actions.” The meat in the plant may still be released for sale, but only once it’s tested for E. coli.
E. coli is a food-borne bacteria that causes symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps. In extreme cases, it can be fatal. The bacteria itself is, however, commonly seen, though outbreaks are rare. “The detection of E. coli in slaughterhouses is not uncommon,” Dr. Evans said.
The recall is wide-reaching, including 316 products from stores in 10 provinces and two territories across Canada as of Friday morning (only Nunavut is exempt). The recall also affects stores in 32 American states and Puerto Rico. The U.S. has halted imports from XL Foods. American food inspectors first noted a problem during a border check on Sept. 3 (one day before the Canadians), but issued its first public notice on Sept. 20.
Consumers are being told to return any affected beef to the store where they bought it, throw it away or, if they insist on cooking it, to ensure it’s well-cooked to kill off the E. coli bacteria.
XL Foods, which bills itself as the largest Canadian owned and operated beef processor, is working with federal officials to correct its procedures and restart production, he said. “My take, at this point in time, is the company is cooperating with us to do the work that needs to be done,” Dr. Evans said.
The XL Foods plant has over 2,000 employees. The company stressed none of its products have been tied directly to an illness. (The CFIA says Costco steaks did pass through the plant, but it’s not clear if they became contaminated there or later). “Even though there has been no definitive link between our products and people who have become ill, we are very concerned for their well-being and are working in their interest,” the company said in a statement.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz was under fire in Question Period Friday morning over the recall, asked why a recall took so long. New Democrat MP Nycole Turmel also pressed Mr. Ritz on what she called a “politically dangerous experiment” - why the federal government leaves much of the monitoring up to companies, under federal supervision, rather than directly inspecting themselves.
Mr. Ritz rejected the questions, saying the fact that there has been no major outbreak is a sign the system is working. The XL Foods plant has 40 federal food inspectors and six veterinarians to cover two shifts, an increase of six staff positions from three years ago.
“The timeline actually backstops the fact that our system does work. There is no endemic situation out there from E. coli. E. coli exists across the country on a daily basis. Having said that, this government is focused on food safety,” Mr. Ritz told the House of Commons.
The government is rolling the dice by reducing front-line meat inspection, said Bob Jackson, a former meat inspector who now works as B.C.’s regional executive vice-president for the Public Service Alliance of Canada.
“I think it does point to a bigger issue. There has been a systemic change in the way inspections are done in these large facilities… whereby most of the inspection sampling, the day-to-day work that was done in the past by CFIA inspectors, is now done by plant personnel,” Mr. Jackson said. “They’ve been steadily increasing, I guess, the amount of responsibility that goes to the plants. And I think, in this case, it raises the spectre that that certainly could have been an issue here.”
PSAC has said $56-million in CFIA cuts will cost it at least 100 food inspector positions. Dr. Evans denied that any inspector positions have been, or will be, cut at the Brooks cattle plant