Food safety officials waited weeks to issue tainted beef alert

Canadian food safety bureaucrats waited nearly two weeks to issue a public health alert after learning that beef from an Alberta plant was contaminated with a potentially deadly bacteria.

Post Media is reporting this morning that officials with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency revealed Monday they only launched an in-depth review of the sanitation and controls at the XL Foods facility in Brooks after their counterparts south of the border found two more contaminated samples of animal trimmings destined for ground beef, infected with E. coli 0157.

A senior executive with the Public Service Alliance of Canada and veteran meat inspector said the affected product should have been recalled within days of the initial positive tests.

“We’ve allowed potentially contaminated product to get to the tables and into stomachs of people across this country,” said Bob Jackson, the PSAC’s executive vicepresident in B.C.

“They should have taken action immediately when they had that positive result. Under the CFIA’s new regulations and procedures, those decisions are left to the company, but there was a time when a federally-appointed, independent inspector would have tagged that product and insisted it wasn’t going anywhere.”

“XL Foods executives did not agree to be interviewed for this story, but an executive with a large American food distributor confirmed on condition of anonymity that the company had told him the contaminated product did not test positive at the plant’s in-house laboratory after it was slaughtered and processed Aug. 27.

“But a shipment that later crossed the border was sampled by inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service on Sept. 3 and was found to be contaminated with the bacteria.

“The test results were passed on to CFIA the next day, the same day the Canadian agency said its own routine sampling found a positive result in product from the XL plant. While agency officials said they immediately began an investigation, no recall was issued based on Health Canada’s assessment that normal cooking would eliminate any risk to consumers.

“On Sept. 12, the Food Safety Inspection Service notified Canadian officials of two more contaminated samples in product that had been intercepted at the border and tested.

“This is not the first time that American authorities have singled out the Brooks facility or wrapped the CFIA on the knuckles for its oversight of meat slaughter and processing facilities that export product to the United States.

“A 2008 audit of what was then Lakeside Packers found knives used to check carcasses had blood and residue from use the previous day, and scrap metal near the building was a potential harbour for pests.

“The 2010 audit noted there had been two instances when contaminated ground beef from unidentified plants in Canada had ended up being caught during FSIS’s border inspections.

“The agency concluded it has systemic concerns with the Canadian inspection system, including the fact CFIA was not consistently assigning federal inspectors to each shift at plants where product was produced. A re-view of Canadian inspector logs found a low number of documented non-compliance instances, which didn’t reflect what their counterparts found when American officials visited the plants.

In the week since the first health warning was announced on Sept. 16, CFIA has had to reissue alerts and expand the voluntary recall six more times to include 250 different products. It has been trying to track down and isolate potentially contaminated product that has moved along the supply chain toward restaurant kitchens and consumer barbecues throughout Canada and parts of the United States.