Ten people across Canada have been sickened by E. coli bacteria linked to the plant at the centre of Canada’s massive beef recall, with more cases under investigation.
Federal food inspection officials, meanwhile, have begun going to grocery stores to confirm products have been pulled from the shelves, a warning to retailers not to drag their heels in responding to the quickly expanding recall.
The caseload is double what had previously been reported, as only five cases in Alberta had earlier been confirmed to have a link. The five additional illnesses are not, however, cases reported to officials in recent days, but are instead those that testing has now formally tied to the investigation.
In each of the 10 cases, public-health officials have used genetic testing to match samples from the person to the strain of E. coli linked to the recall.
Seven of the cases are in Alberta, two are in Quebec and one is in Newfoundland and Labrador.
All 10 people are recovering, or have recovered, officials said.
The genetic fingerprint of the E. coli strain hasn’t been found in North America before now, leading health officials to conclude that they’re linked.
“It’s not been seen before. That’s why we can say with great confidence that if you have that particular fingerprint, you’re linked somehow to the XL investigation,” said Frank Plummer, chief science officer of the Public Health Agency of Canada.
The additional cases, announced Saturday, are the latest development in the investigation into XL Foods’s massive slaughterhouse in Brooks, Alta. E. coli from a single slaughter day, Aug. 23, and five subsequent production days has led to a recall of millions of pounds of beef spanning much of the continent.
Officials won’t say how many other cases are being investigated, as it’s changing quickly. Alberta Health Services has already ruled out a link in some of those illnesses it had been investigating. Genetic testing can take several days.
Canadian Health Inspection Agency inspectors are also visiting grocery stores to ensure any potentially tainted meat has been taken off shelves, though they face a lofty task – nearly every major retailer in Canada is linked to the recall.
Symptoms of illness from E. coli bacteria include diarrhea, vomiting and a moderate fever, usually of no more than 38.5 degrees.
The XL plant was shut down on Sept. 27, two weeks after the United States shut its border to the facility’s exports.
The CFIA has since outlined a series of shortcomings in the plant’s procedures, including faulty nozzles, leaking pipes and a faulty thermometer.
Many of these weren’t spotted by the 46 full-time CFIA investigators assigned to the plant, with the agency saying they’re “less critical” than “key hazard control points where food risks are the greatest.”
The plant won’t reopen until the problems are fixed, and several “corrective action” requests issued by the CFIA are complied with.
“We’re not the people that will dictate the timeline,” said CFIA meat programs director Richard Arsenault, when asked Saturday when the plant will reopen. “It will be up to the plant to decide the timeline,” Dr. Arsenault added.
XL Foods has asked staff to check in Monday on whether they’ll be needed back at work Tuesday. In a statement Thursday, the company acknowledged its processes fell short and took “full responsibility” for the outbreak. “All the members of the XL community deeply regret the illness caused be the consumption of beef products,” the company said in a recorded statement a day later. Its co-CEOs, Brian and Lee Nilsson, haven’t responded to repeated requests for comment.