8 now sickened from E. coli burgers in Canada

A person in Saskatchewan has been confirmed with E. coli O157:H7  linked to a nation-wide outbreak, bringing the total to eight.

People began getting sick in Nov. 2012 and investigators honed in on burgers made by Cardinal Meats.

Matt McClure of the Calgary Herald reported yesterday that the outbreak raises questions about when to go public with health information.

“If we were in a situation where tons and tons of people were getting sick, we’d salmonella.hamburger.patty.recallprobably act faster,” Dr. Gregory Taylor, the health agency’s deputy chief, said.

“You don’t want to initiate a food recall unless you have good solid evidence that’s the offending product because there’s big implications … for the producer and marketer it’s a big loss and cost to them.”

The information from the three ill patients last fall did prompt the CFIA staff to quietly begin testing packages of the suspect Butcher’s Choice brand inspectors collected from store shelves.

But because none were initially able to provide a product box or a store receipt that would allow investigators to pinpoint a lot number or production day at the facility, the government didn’t sound the alarm.

Unable to find an unopened package in the market that was tainted, officials at the two federal agencies waited until the additional cases popped up on their computer screens in early December before convening an emergency meeting with their provincial counterparts.

Even then, federal employees believed there was inadequate proof to order a recall by a plant that churns out over $100 million in product each year.

The decision was made that another round of testing of product from store shelves was necessary. When CFIA found a contaminated package on Dec. 12, federal officials finally felt they had the scientific basis to issue a public health alert.

Some consumer advocates and food safety experts say the federal government’s handling of the Cardinal investigation and its delays during the XL Foods outbreak that left 18 people ill earlier last fall show it has conflicting priorities.

Rick Holley, a meat microbiologist at the University of Manitoba, thinks CFIA and PHAC could have acted sooner.

“They don’t have an excuse to wait for an analytical result from a food product,” Holley said. “Epidemiological evidence from patients is enough in Canada, just like it is in the United States.”

In the wake of the 2008 listeria outbreak at Maple Leaf Foods that killed 23 people and left dozens more ill, an independent investigator told CFIA and PHAC they should look more at the food histories of patients and depend less on finding tainted product on store shelves when deciding whether a health alert is warranted.

A new policy issued two years ago by Health Canada was supposed to ensure that the total weight of evidence would determine the course of action during future outbreaks.

“But because O157 still isn’t considered an adulterant under Canadian legislation,” said Holley, “I expect there’s still some reluctance to follow those rules.”

Beef trim from Canada, New Zealand and Australia had been used to make the tainted burgers, but investigators were never able to pinpoint a specific source of the contamination.

By Christmas Eve, though, CFIA officials thought they had all the tainted product off the shelves and issued a release to say their investigation was concluded.

Within weeks, they would be forced to resume their probe.

Two more patients — one in Manitoba and another in Ontario — fell ill last month from what PHAC now says is a strain of bacteria nearly identical to one found earlier.

Taylor said consumers shouldn’t depend on CFIA and PHAC staff to ensure their beef isn’t tainted.

“The consistent message we have to Canadians is to fully cook your hamburger,” he said. “We’ve got a good food safety system in this country, but nothing’s perfect.”