Eight people are sick and several products have been recalled after an E. coli outbreak linked to an Alberta beef processing plant, with health officials urging people to either not eat the meat or to ensure it is thoroughly cooked.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, however, failed to stop the spread of the Escherichia coli O157:H7 bacteria before it moved "downstream," or into supermarkets and then consumers' refrigerators.
What began with slaughter on Aug. 23 continued with sales in early September, a positive test for E. coli at the U.S. border on Sept. 3, illnesses in Alberta and positive lab tests – all before the first ground beef recall was issued Sept. 16. Seven subsequent updates extended the recall to more than 200 products at several major grocery chains nationwide. In the latest development, a recall was issued Wednesday on contaminated steaks sold at an Edmonton Costco store, from which at least four people have fallen ill.
All told, Alberta health officials say eight people are sick because of the E. coli bacteria, including a young girl who was hospitalized, though some illnesses haven't been definitively linked to the suspect beef. Symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting and stomach cramps. The CFIA knows of no illnesses outside Alberta.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford publicly questioned the "unfortunate" delay in issuing recalls – a notion health officials reject.
"I'm not sure it did take so long," said Richard Arsenault, director of the CFIA's meat inspection program. The ground beef contamination was first identified by American officials on Sept. 3. The CFIA confirmed it the next day, but thought it was an isolated case. Such cases are not uncommon.
That meat wasn't released to market, but other samples that tested negative and were sold "just happened to have some E. coli in them still," he said. A second positive was found Sept. 12, signaling it was bigger than the CFIA first thought, with inspectors arriving to the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta., on Sept. 13. The first recall came three days later.
Dr. Arsenault acknowledged the system clearly didn't work properly, "otherwise [the contaminated meat] wouldn't have gone out the door," he said.
But it didn't stop with ground beef. The E. coli spread to steaks sold at a northeast Edmonton Costco between Sept. 4 and Sept. 7, the CFIA announced Wednesday. They were possibly contaminated because the store used a "needling" machine to tenderize its steak by puncturing it, according to Alberta Health Services. The process can spread E. coli into the centre of a steak, where it's less easily killed during cooking.
Alberta officials asked Costco to stop the needling practice, which will be reviewed "pretty stringently" and possibly banned altogether, said James Talbot, Alberta's chief medical officer of health.
Alberta nonetheless argues its system is safe, with 66 cases of E. coli contamination identified to date this year, on par with recent annual averages and down from five years ago. "There's no reason to fear Alberta beef," Dr. Talbot said.
The recall notice tells people "not to consume" the steaks or ground beef, but consumers who cook the meat thoroughly would be "at a very, very low risk of anything," Dr. Arsenault said.
The cases are all linked to XL Foods, the CFIA says, though it's not clear if the steaks were processed there or contaminated later. The American Food Safety and Inspection Service said the beef was "produced under insanitary conditions."
CFIA's inspection found two minor deficiencies at XL Foods that may have led to the contamination. The plant is in operation again, but the U.S. has banned imports from the facility. In a statement, XL Foods said the recall was "out of an abundance of caution" and that consumer safety is its top priority.