The Alberta slaughterhouse at the centre of a widespread E. coli outbreak last year was flagged for serious sanitation, maintenance and training problems in the months leading up to the largest-ever meat recall in Canada, newly released inspection reports reveal.
On five occasions between January and September, 2012, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) ordered the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta., to clean up its act after uncovering contamination risks or regulatory breaches on the production line, in the cooler and in the storage area, according to documents obtained by The Globe and Mail through access-to-information legislation.
Among the problems cited were condensation dripping from pipes and rails onto dead cattle in the cooler; employees failing to sanitize knives and hooks in the carcass-cutting and de-hiding areas of production; animal fat and blood buildup on stairs between two zones of a kill floor; potentially contaminated bull necks dragging on a conveyor belt; and improper labelling procedures for shipments containing meat handled on different production dates.
It's unclear whether these problems were a harbinger of the more serious food-safety threat that followed, in which at least 18 people in Canada fell ill after eating meat processed by XL Foods. But the CFIA's five corrective-action requests issued to the Edmonton-based company before potentially deadly E. coli O157:H7 was detected in XL beef trimmings on Sept. 4 expose some of the safety issues government inspectors grappled with at the country's second-largest meat packer.
At times, food inspectors halted work at production stations to address contamination threats or to require XL workers to be retrained for failing to follow sanitary practices. Production, however, was usually restarted within minutes (as little as two minutes in one case) – nothing close to the nearly month-long shutdown that followed the XL meat recall that spanned more than 20 countries.
Unsanitary conditions appear to have been an ongoing problem at XL Foods in 2012. Three of the five corrective orders issued before the recall were for failing to meet regulatory requirements related to sanitary practices, operational sanitation or pre-operational sanitation. Unsanitary practices were also raised during the CFIA's investigation of the E. coli contamination, University of Manitoba food-safety expert Rick Holley noted.
"In properly operated meat-processing facilities, you just wouldn't see dirty rooms and dirty equipment being put into production," Dr. Holley said.
After a lengthy review of XL's food-safety practices, the CFIA gave the company the go-ahead to resume production in late October. Ultimately, the agency's investigation determined that no single factor led to the widespread meat contamination; rather, a combination of several deficiencies probably played a role, such as the fact the company was not always following its control measures for positive E. coli tests.
The CFIA did not have a spokesperson available for an interview on Monday to discuss the problems inspectors flagged before the E. coli outbreak. In an e-mail, media relations manager Guy Gravelle noted that XL addressed all the problems raised in the corrective orders issued before the Sept. 4 contamination finding.
Federal inspectors use corrective orders to deal with both minor and serious concerns that require action from the company, Mr. Gravelle added. If a company fails to resolve the problems identified in the orders, the CFIA can halt production, suspend the plant's operating licence or prosecute the company for food-safety violations.
It's not unusual for a plant of XL's size to receive several corrective action requests within a year, Dr. Holley said. The slaughterhouse, which is still owned by XL but being managed by JBS USA, is an older facility and poses greater maintenance challenges, he added. But those maintenance issues, such as the rusty saw blade and rusty trim-station kick plate noted in an Aug. 20, 2012, corrective action request report, should be part of a company's hazard-analysis plan.
"Enhanced vigilance ... can compensate for the age of a plant," Dr. Holley said.
JBS USA did not respond to a request for comment Monday. When the company took over management of the slaughterhouse, it had pledged to enhance training and improve food-safety practices. The plant employs about 2,200 workers and is a major economic engine for the small city of Brooks.
JBS USA, a subsidiary of Brazilian food giant JBS S.A., has been given the exclusive option to purchase the XL slaughterhouse and other properties for $50-million (U.S.) in cash and $50-million in JBS S.A. shares. The deal has not been finalized, but last month the Alberta government waived its foreign-ownership land rules for JBS, paving the way for the international company to buy the properties and gain a significant foothold in Canada.