It’s enough to make some people consider vegetarianism. Just when the memory of the Mad Cow scare of almost 10 years ago had almost faded from the concerns of the general public, we are again thrown into a panic, this time over beef contaminated with E. coli coming out of Alberta.
Located in Brooks, Alberta, XL Foods is that province’s largest beef processing plant, responsible for one-third of the beef product in the country.
It’s not just that 11 people mainly in Western Canada have so far become ill from eating contaminated beef that has so many people concerned. It is also that for almost two weeks after the initial detection of E. coli at XL Foods on September 4, Canadian authorities, in this case the federal Ministry of Agriculture’s Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), did not issue a public advisory that contaminated beef had been distributed. This was despite receiving a notification about E. coli contamination of XL beef from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service, apparently on the same date that CFIA had detected E. coli in XL’s products.
It wasn’t until September 27 that CFIA finally issued a decision to temporarily suspend XL Foods’ licence to operate, but it was XL’s decision for the beef recall, the largest in Canadian history. CFIA has the authority to issue mandatory recalls, but didn’t.
What’s going on here? XL Foods, one of just two federally inspected beef plants in Alberta had, at the time of the detection by the USDA, 1.13 million kilograms of beef going into the U.S., one of 20 countries that import its products.
It took a crisis to put the cattle slaughtering plant on notice, despite earlier concerns about poor sanitation at the plant. And, were it not for this crisis, inspections would continue to be reviewed on paper by CIFA, which relied on the plant’s inspectors.
This week, CFIA inspectors finally went through a detailed in-person inspection of the plant, which would presumably address on-going issues such as training protocol, reports that some workers with beards apparently weren’t wearing nets over them, laxness around hand washing and sanitation equipment not properly functioning.
Somewhere between 3000-5000 cows are processed at XL Foods daily, where 40 meat inspectors working in two shifts would then have to inspect almost four cows per minute. Therefore, in the interest of consumer safety, it really should not only be the job of the government to ensure the safety of meats in the plant, but of every worker there. And it certainly should not have been monitored secondarily as has been CFIA’s practice. One consumer report concluded that CFIA failed to protect the public.
Higher up the chain of command, Agriculture Minister Gerald Ritz is also being held to account for leaving safety regulation to the industry and being more concerned about his role as a representative for the interests of the industry, rather than the public.
The Senate has introduced a bill, now being reviewed by parliament, that could strengthen food safety legislation in Canada. The bill would give CFIA more power to ensure companies are following regulations.
It is not clear whether the bill also addresses the usual time-consuming government paperwork process in these matters, as well as the time it takes to get the results of bacteriological tests. The time factor is also critical since, while tests are being conducted, as in the XL Foods case, contaminated meat continues to be distributed all over the continent and beyond.
The government may be saving some money by handing safety oversight to the industry, and while cutting red tape and creating efficiency are welcome, such policies must not come at the price of public safety. The Walkerton, Ontario tragedy that took seven lives because of E. coli-contaminated water should have made that abundantly clear.