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food safety

Fresh ground beef is packed at a local butcher shop Monday, October 1, 2012 in Levis, Que.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Provincially licensed slaughterhouses in B.C. should consider adding tests for pathogens such as E. coli or listeria to their inspection regimes, says a food safety specialist at the University of British Columbia.

"This is a significant issue," Kevin Allen, an assistant professor of food microbiology at UBC, said in an interview Tuesday.

"We now have 10 or more cases of food-borne disease linked to [an outbreak at Alberta's XL Foods,]" he said. The outbreak has made several people ill and resulted in a massive recall of beef products.

"And E. coli 0157 is a very serious food-borne pathogen. The disease that can result from it is more consequential than [results from] most of the common food-borne pathogens that we associate with food poisoning, if you will."

Slaughterhouses in B.C. include federally licensed plants as well as several classes of facilities licensed by the province.

B.C. does not currently test for pathogens such as E. coli or listeria at provincially regulated plants unless there is a suspicion of contamination. E. coli testing is part of routine testing at federal plants.

The biggest risk of contamination from pathogens such as E. coli comes during processing, not slaughtering, a spokeswoman for B.C.'s Health Ministry – which currently regulates slaughterhouses in the province – said Tuesday in an e-mail.

Health Canada does not recommend routine testing for E. coli as a public-health measure and research indicates that "routine pathogen testing of carcasses at the slaughter plant is not considered an effective food safety intervention," according to the provincial spokeswoman.

That said, the province is "reviewing the potential applicability of testing in our new meat inspection system."

Since the 1980s, B.C. has hired the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to provide meat inspection services in accordance with B.C. guidelines for provincially licensed slaughter plants. Between now and the end of next year, however, the CFIA is shifting out of that contract role in B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

And consumers who believe their meat is safer because it comes from a small producer who can trace a given cow back to its corral may be operating with a false sense of security, Mr. Allen said.

"When we talk about small [B.C.] producers and how safe they are, I get a little uncomfortable – because how do we know? We're not testing for E. coli 0157 so they are not held to the same standards we are seeing for the larger, federally licensed plants."

Specialty vendors say customers are willing to pay a premium for product that can be traced back to its producer.

"We deal with one or two heads [of cattle] a week and we know where they are from and we are grinding our own stuff," Karl Gregg, co-manager of Vancouver's Big Lou's Butcher Shop, said on Tuesday. "People are always curious about where the meat is coming from. It's definitely a knowledgeable crowd."

Big Lou's buys carcasses from a B.C. distributor that deals with a small number of producers in the province and breaks the carcasses down into products that include steaks and sausages.

But much of the beef sold to consumers in this province – recent industry estimates put the figure as high as 45 per cent – is processed by the massive XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta.

A recall of 1.5 million pounds of beef from the plant began September 16 with ground-beef products and has since expanded to include more items and an increasing number of retailers.