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The XL Foods plant sits idle behind a cattle fence in Brooks, Alta. (TODD KOROL/REUTERS)
The XL Foods plant sits idle behind a cattle fence in Brooks, Alta. (TODD KOROL/REUTERS)

OPINION

Despite E. coli scandal, it’s business as usual for XL Foods Add to ...

So that’s it, then?

XL Foods, whose unsanitary, licence-violating practices over five days resulted in at least 15 people being poisoned with E. coli and sparked the largest red-meat recall in Canadian history, plans to be back in the slaughtering business by week’s end and shipping meat to stores again within 10 days.

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By all appearances, there will be no fines, no sanctions, no extra scrutiny, no public inquiry.

Don’t we teach our children that, when you screw up, there are consequences?

Apparently that is not the case in Canadian agribusiness.

Instead, we are supposed to feel sorry for XL Foods because its infamous Establishment 38 was shut down for three weeks while it cleaned out the crap – literally, not just figuratively – and mopping-up operations were carried out across the country.

More than 2,000 food products were recalled in every province and territory. It is dumb luck, more than anything else, that so few people became seriously ill. (Remember that a much smaller E. coli outbreak in Germany last year killed 57 people.)

Gerry Ritz, the federal Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, whose job – presumably – is to ensure the safety of the Canadian food supply, seems to think that we should prostrate ourselves before the cattle and beef industry.

On the weekend, when XL Foods laid off 2,000 workers – a gesture that was arguably aimed at putting political pressure on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to speed up its work so production could resume – Mr. Ritz took the bait whole hog.

“My thoughts are with the workers and the community affected,” he said.

The comments were eerily similar to those of the company’s co-CEO Brian Nilsson: “XL Foods is committed to the cattle industry, our employees, the city of Brooks and all affected by the idling of the Brooks facility.”

Clearly, the two protagonists in the sad affair can’t bring themselves to utter the c-word – consumer.

Shouldn’t consumer safety, not restarting the production line, be the paramount concern?

Since the plant’s licence was suspended on Sept. 27 – three weeks after E. coli was discovered in meat – inspectors had to test more than 5,000 carcasses, the plant had to be cleaned and sanitized, and now the CFIA will oversee things as work resumes to make sure mistakes are not repeated.

But once the scale-up is done, within the next few days, it will be business as usual, meaning the slaughter of 4,000 head of cattle daily and cranking out the equivalent of 3,000 steaks an hour for hungry consumers.

The CFIA is far from perfect – and we will soon see how imperfect, because the U.S. Department of Agriculture is going to do an audit – but it has taken too much of the blame. Yes, the agency was slow to act, but the bottom line is that tainted meat got to market in massive quantities because the company failed to follow protocols. It has done so, seemingly, with impunity.

There have also been attempts to pass the buck to consumers. Repeatedly we have been told that E. coli is not a threat if you cook your meat properly.

That is not entirely true. In 1994, the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service reclassified E. coli as an “adulterant” that is not allowed in food. This change occurred after four children died and 600 other people were sickened by E. coli after eating Jack in the Box burgers. The beef was cooked but not enough to kill the pathogen.

“Just cook it doesn’t cut it,” says Doug Powell, a professor at Kansas State University who tracks food safety problems on his blog, barfblog.com.

Business as usual shouldn’t cut it either. We should be rethinking the current inspection rules if seemingly minor slip-ups can allow tonnes of tainted meat to slip through. We should even be rethinking the wisdom of having two massive producers account for almost all of the country’s beef production. Is that really healthy, economically and otherwise?

When it comes to food safety, and the enforcement of food safety rules, consumers should be asking themselves: Where’s the beef?

 

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