Tragic: Settlement reached after Canadian boy left disabled by E. coli

Kevin Rollason of the Winnipeg Free Press reports a 14-year-old Winnipeg youth has been awarded more than $2.5 million after eating ground beef tainted with deadly E. coli bacteria and being left to live with multiple disabilities and unable to look after himself for the rest of his life.

ground-beef_350(2)Justice Lori Spivak, of Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench, approved the settlement in an order last month, which had been reached earlier between the boy’s family, the province’s Public Trustee, grocer Westfair Foods, and meat processor XL Foods.

“The events were quite tragic,” Chris Wullum, the family’s lawyer, said on Thursday.

“The hamburger meat he consumed left catastrophic injuries. The family is pleased that a fair settlement was reached that will allow them to look after him.”

The boy, who is a permanent ward of Metis Child and Family Services, was just two in 2004 when his mother fed him Hamburger Helper with ground beef she had bought at the Superstore on McPhillips Street.

The mother got sick, but her son became severely ill and had to be hospitalized. He needed a kidney transplant and he suffered a massive stroke in his middle cerebral artery, leaving him with severe spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy and permanent cognitive impairments. Doctors didn’t know if he was going to survive during the first couple of years.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency launched a recall of ground beef products in August 2004 after two people in Manitoba were poisoned with E. coli bacteria the month before. A Public Health Agency of Canada report later that year said 27 people became ill after consuming beef tainted with the same strain of E. coli.

Court documents said the agency tested frozen ground beef, still in the family’s freezer, and found it was contaminated with that strain of E. coli.

The boy became a permanent ward of Winnipeg Child and Family Services because the mother couldn’t look after him with all of his special needs, but he has since been transferred to Metis CFS and he has been living with his grandparents since 2009.

The settlement also saw XL Foods drop its counter lawsuit against the boy’s mother, in which it claimed she had been at fault for not cooking the ground beef properly.

Union, CFIA says old timey managers root of XL E. coli outbreak

Canadian government and unions care little for food safety.

But, like any relationship souring, they seek to blame each other.

o_brother_pardoned-199And this has been going on for decades.

In response to the XL Foods E. coli O157 outbreak that sickened at least 18 people last year, and a subsequent report that blamed both the company and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for having a “weak food safety culture,” Bob Kingston, president of the agricultural union of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, told Western Producer, with a straight face, “It was an open secret for a long time that there was a coziness between some of the CFIA people and the (meat packing) industry in Alberta.

“There were old school managers in that part of the country that were a bit of a problem. If they say there was a relaxed attitude (to food safety), some of that was a hangover and a lot of it has been addressed. Some of those managers have been replaced.”

CFIA president George Da Pont also said with a straight face part of the problem was the fact that many inspectors are embedded in plants for years, and “there is a possibility they might not be as rigorous after 10 or 15 years as they were at the start.”

Comforting to the sick people, and all those lost wages because of the recall.

Don’t keep doing the same inspection, crazy to expect different result

None of them get food safety.

Politicians, inspectors, unions, bureaucrats, organizations and companies.

There are many individuals who do, and contribute tremendously to making fewer people barf each day, but they operate in a climate of institutional pot_bunker_st_andrewsindifference.

It’s not like there’s a lack of evidence.

Canadians are wondering how that indifference by both XL Foods and Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors could be so prominent just five years after the Maple Leaf listeria outbreak killed 23.

It’s easy: no knowledge, no hard questions, protecting turf, and a minister of agriculture who is still inexplicably minister.

Today’s New York Times editorializes there are some 8,600 federal meat inspectors in the U.S. working in 6,300 packing and processing plants and cites a report from USDA’s inspector general which concludes at least the pig inspectors may sorta suck at it.

But it’s like reading the XL report out of Canada, or the two Prof. Pennington reports from the UK on outbreaks in Scotland (1996) and Wales (2005): serial violators of health standards were allowed to keep operating.

The Times says, “Even in the presence of government investigators, some inspectors failed to condemn contaminated meat. Nor were the inspectors vigilant enough when it came to flagging violations of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which specifies a minimum standard for the treatment of animals being led to slaughter.

“The good news is that the Agriculture Department is inspecting its inspection system. The bad news is that the inspector general’s office Bobby-jones-resized.storymerely urges inspectors to conform more fully to existing laws and directives, when what is needed is more and better-trained inspectors.”

Nope, the problem is far more systemic and far more rooted in human behavior than anything more training is going to fix.

The definition of crazy is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Time for something different.

No confidence: Canada’s food safety rules good, but must be followed, enforced

Canada has an excellent international reputation for crafting rules and regulations and a lousy international reputation for verification and enforcement.

This has been a truism, along with the best health care in the world – it’s not – for the 50 years I’ve been around; others can speak to no-bs4more dated legacies.

Canadian Press picked up on this theme and applied it to food safety.

Veteran cattleman George Graham has a common-sense solution for how to prevent a repeat of an E. coli outbreak and extensive product recall in the fall that made 18 people sick, threw thousands out of work and smeared the Canadian beef brand.

Officials who regulate and work in the industry must simply do their jobs properly.

“We have an extremely good product and we have a very good food-safety program compared to other places around the world,” Graham said from his feedlot in southern Alberta where his family has raised cattle since 1918.

“We just need to be more vigilant that the job is getting done.”

It’s more complicated. The bugs are constantly changing, better science is developed, and the rules need to be flexible. And the best will always go above and beyond the minimal standard of government.

Professor Rick Holley, a University of Manitoba food safety expert, said there is no excuse for the sanitation problems that led to the closure of the Brooks plant.

He said Canada is respected around the world for its progressive food safety rules. The problem, he suggested, is that those rules are not as vigorously enforced as they should be.

How could 40 inspectors and six veterinarians at the XL plant somehow miss the problems?

Ron Glaser of Canada Beef – the marketing folks – said the industry is developing an information campaign that it is expected cow-faceto roll out in the new year, to reassure consumers.

It is likely to include information on how producers take care in raising cattle and an assurance that Canada has an extremely safe food system.

And it will be void of data.

The days of trust us, we’re farmers, processors, retailers, restaurants, has long passed.

If people want to know where their beef comes from as an indicator of confidence, put a url on the package so consumers can look it up; link to the farm and slaughterhouse; show them what happens; and, because farmers, processors, retailers, restaurants or even government inspectors have X-ray bacteria-sensing goggles, make test result data publicly available. McDonald’s demands that data from the slaughterhouses that provide beef for their burgers, why shouldn’t consumers have the same access?

Inexplicable Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said the federal government has faith in JBS USA, the company that’s now managing the Brooks XL plant in Alberta.

“JBS is a tremendous corporate partner. They brought an era of food culture to that plant that we haven’t seen for quite some time so we look forward to them and moving on to the future.”

I get creeped when Ritz starts talking about food culture.

And I tried to parse the quote but my head started spinning, so I’ll leave that to my elders as well.

He said, she said: CFIA does/does not have different inspection criteria for domestic and exported meats

My introduction to the real food and agriculture world was driving around Ontario with Doug and Amber Bailey. In the summer of 2001, we went on a trip to Leamington, Ontario to spend some time in greenhouses where Amber was collecting wash water and tomato samples for analysis and talking to the growers about risks. These trips were part of a program that Doug, Amber and Denton Hoffman, then General Manager of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, had created to protect the industry.

On that trip, Denton told me that what kept him up at night was the thought of a customer in Pittsburgh or Cleveland getting sick from one of his industry’s 200+ members products.

That one incident could close the border to the hundreds of thousands of pounds of tomatoes and cucumbers that were being shipped all over the Eastern U.S.

Trade matters in food safety – but making any customer sick isn’t great business.

The XL Foods/CFIA saga continues with drama that rivals an episode of Jersey Shore. According to the Toronto Star, CTV news obtained a set of memos from 2008, 2010 and 2011 that directed  CFIA inspectors at XL Foods to focus their attention on beef that would be shipped to Japan.

The memo says, “Our number 1 priority is to ensure this standard is met with Japan eligible carcasses.Ensure that non-Japan-eligible carcasses are not inspected for spinal cord/dura mater, OCD (other carcass defects) and minor ingesta, Ignore them.”

CFIA has responded that the memo’s content has been taken out of context and that the memo had more to do with the division of inspection labor and who inspected for what and where.

On November 28, 2012, CTV reported on a four-year-old memo sent to inspectors at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). The union, which represents inspectors, has recently alleged the memo directed inspection staff at XL Foods Inc. to perform certain tasks for meat destined for export to Japan, while ignoring food safety controls for domestic meat. This is categorically false.

This information was clarified with the union and front line inspection staff over three weeks ago when the union first brought their allegations to the CFIA’s attention. It was also explained in detail on two occasions to CTV. What the union and CTV fail to mention is that every carcass processed in Canada must meet Canada’s high food safety standards. This is required by law. There is zero tolerance for any form of contamination, and critical control points to detect problems are in place at multiple points throughout the inspection process. If at any time during inspection a potential risk to food safety is detected – regardless of the product’s destination – the line is stopped and product is held until the concern is resolved and product is in compliance.

Lost in this whole mess is the dogmatic belief that people can magically see pathogens.

Grass-fed, natural or otherwise, no guaranteed meat safety

Microorganisms don’t discriminate; just ask the 550 diners who got sick with norovirus at Heston Blumenthal’s fancy pants Fat Duck restaurant a few years ago.

Sarah Elton, whose new book Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet will be published in the spring, writes in the Globe and Mail there is a prevalent belief that meat in the local food system is safer than what is offered at the supermarket. I thought this too, long before the XL Foods recall, and while researching my book, Locavore, about the local food movement’s alternatives to the industrial food system in Canada, I became more familiar with the differences. I am willing to pay more for locally-raised meat because it’s better for the environment, supports local economies, and is safer from the nasty bugs of industrial food such as E. coli O157 and antibiotic-resistant pathogens – or so I thought. The other day, as I was preparing grass-fed beef for dinner, I took a second look at what I was cooking. I realized I had assumed that this beef was safer – but was it really?

It turns out that buying a safer meat is more complicated than simply choosing local, organic, naturally raised or grass-fed. In fact, none of these labels is guaranteed to be safer.

“Bacteria really don’t care about our politics,” said Douglas Powell, a food scientist at Kansas State University who has been studying E. coli O157 for two decades. “There are risks in all food systems.” As a study out of Purdue University that compared regular beef to grass-fed concludes, “there are no clear food safety advantages to grass-fed beef products over conventional beef products.”

All cows can potentially carry toxic E. coli – as can wild deer and even raccoon. Meat is most likely to be contaminated when the carcass is gutted; animal hides can carry, and spread, the bacteria.

“Almost all food decisions are faith-based,” Powell said. “That’s why people say things like ‘I trust my farmer.’ Faith-based food systems have to go.” He wants companies to provide the consumer with food safety data.

As for me, I’ll continue to buy meat raised without antibiotics, by farmers practising low-impact agriculture. I will also, however, buy a tip-sensitive meat thermometer. I’d rather be safe than sorry.

XL sucks; Companies have primary responsibility for food safety. Without that, we’re all screwed

The feds are doing a lot of chest-thumping as the XL slaughterhouse in Alberta struggles to reopen, what with 17 now sick from E. coli O157:H7 linked to beef from the plant.

Such behavior is absolutely expected, because the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has to do something publicly to convince Canadians they are on the ball, so they, and everyone else can go back to sleep.

Why these deficiencies were never noticed by the 40 inspectors and six veterinarians at the plant until people started getting sick – and even then it took days if not weeks for the system to kick in – has never been adequately explained.

Never will be.

The delays in reporting the listeria-in-Maple-Leaf cold cuts in 2008 that killed 23 Canadians generated a similar response. Why the same Minister is still responsible for the same CFIA, and why the union still says the solution is more inspectors speaks only to the rise of mediocrity in Canada.

According to a CFIA statement, On October 29, 2012, Establishment 38, XL Foods Inc., resumed slaughter activities and operations under enhanced CFIA surveillance and increased testing protocols.

Over the course of the first week of operations, the CFIA determined that the establishment’s overall food safety controls were being effectively managed.

As would be expected in a facility that has not been in regular operation for some time, there have been some observations made by CFIA that resulted in the CFIA issuing new Corrective Action Requests (CARs) to XL Foods Inc. since the plant reopened. These observations included:

• condensation on pipes in the tripe room;

• water in a sanitizer was not maintained at a high temperature;

• meat cutting areas were not adequately cleaned; and,

• no sanitizing chemical solution in the mats used for cleaning employees’ boots.

The CFIA instructed plant management to take immediate action to address these concerns, including the following:

Potentially contaminated product was sent for rendering.

Sanitizers were brought into compliance immediately.

The meat cutting area was cleaned and sanitized.

Boot mats were supplied with sanitizer.

My comments are: why wasn’t potentially contaminated product dumped in a landfill like the other meat and how is that decision made between rendering and dump; were sanitizers ever in compliance and why did no one notice; was the meat cutting area ever clean, and did boot mats ever have sanitizer?

As reported in Canadian Business, “Companies have the primary responsibility for food safety,” says Rick Holley, a professor of food science at the University of Manitoba. “Without that, we’re all screwed.”

To reduce the chances of another XL debacle, the solution isn’t more inspectors or better processes. Instead, the meat industry needs to do the one thing it has so far avoided: talk openly and publicly about the manufacturing process. In short, it’s time for them to show us how the sausage is made.

Doug Powell, a food scientist and professor at Kansas State University has simple advice to food producers: “Provide information to consumers so that they can choose and reward those companies with good food-safety practices.” Consumers who currently want to select a package of ground beef at a grocery store based on which producer is safest are out of luck. Some meat products, such as chicken breasts, feature brand names like Maple Leaf, but for others it’s unclear where they were actually produced.

Compare that to the restaurant industry. Many municipal governments have instituted a report-card system so patrons can gauge a restaurant’s safety record before deciding where to dine. Before buying meat at a grocery store, safety-conscious consumers should be able to go to a producer’s website to learn about the risks associated with the products, what the company does to mitigate those risks, where mistakes have been made in the past, and how they’ve been rectified. Companies can essentially use safety as a competitive advantage. “I would argue food safety is a pretty good money-maker,” Powell says.

Consider how corporations in other sectors have differentiated themselves by trumpeting their dedication to safety. Volvo advertised its safety record more aggressively in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s when the government instituted stricter automobile regulations. “It shouldn’t take an act of Congress to make cars safe” was one memorable tag line. Newspaper ads detailed how the company installed seat belts and padded dashboards years before it became mandatory, and explained how Volvo continued to exceed government standards. There is arguably even more opportunity now for a food producer to stand out than there was for Volvo decades ago. A whole variety of factors influence car-buying decisions. When consumers buy ground beef, however, they might consider price, but that’s it. Drawing attention to safety is one way to differentiate your product.

Opening up is risky, naturally, and no company is enthusiastic about challenging the status quo. So meat processors have remained steadfastly opaque, both here and in the U.S., Powell says.

Is hard-nosed science-based? Canadian food safety minister speaks

After 23 people died linked to Maple Leaf cold-cuts in 2008, and 16 now sickened with E. coli O157 linked to the XL plant in Alberta, the person who is still, inexplicitly, the Canadian Minister of Agriculture, responsible for food safety activities, Gerry Ritz, has made his most revealing statement yet:

Government inspectors could have been “more hard-nosed.”

I’m not sure hard-nosed is a science- or evidence-based term that would be valued by a science-based organization like the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which reports to Ritz.

Sarah Schmidt reports that while speaking to parliamentarians Ritz said,“Looking back, what would we have done different? I think CFIA would have been a lot harder-nosed on getting the material from XL rather than being nice, and going the format with the letter and so on. You stand banging at the door until you got it. But we weren’t seeing any illness spikes to drive us to decertification. That wasn’t happening,” while characterizing license decertification as a “nuclear strike.”

Compare that with getting E. coli O157.

On Sept. 6, CFIA verbally requested distribution information and testing results for all products produced on Aug. 24 and Aug. 28, the days when the affected products were made. The agency followed up a day later with a written request to provide the documents by Sept. 8.

The documents were provided over a two-day period, Sept. 10 and Sept. 11, and Ritz testified Thursday the company “was not that forthcoming.” And when the records rolled in, there were “boxes of paper work that then had to be analyzed.”

Ritz added: “I don’t think they were intentionally trying to hide anything,” but rather “giving voluminous paperwork to cover off the bases.”

16 sick; Alberta beef plant to reopen, producing food as safe as it was before outbreak; questions remain

Canadians can go back to sleep, the XL plant in Alberta has been cleared to reopen.

The 16 E. coli O157:H7 victims and their families may have a few more questions.

So may the rest of Canadians and anyone else concerned about two aspects of this outbreak: how do people know if beef has been needle tenderized, and should recalled meat be dumped in a landfill or processed for further use? Oh, and whether the Canadian Food Inspection Agency does anything, with their 40 inspectors and six veterinarians in the plant. And whether XL cares about anything other than profit.

As David Acheson, former food safety  guru at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said when spinach returned to the shelves in 2006 after an E. coli outbreak that killed four and sickened 200, “the spinach on the shelf will be as safe as it was before the outbreak.”

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, as usual, has little to say.

It’s apparently up to journalists and consumers to ask. Because they are the critical control point in farm-to-fork food safety.


Especially when an official with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) was unable to explain Monday how the public can be certain of when it needs to take extra precautions around needle tenderized beef in the absence of any requirement that retailers or restaurants label tenderized products.

“That’s a very difficult question,” said Dr. Gregory Taylor, the health agency’s deputy chief public health officer.

Yeah, that’s why you have your job; do it.

Mark Klassen, director of technical services with the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, told the Calgary Herald the tenderization of beef has been “quite widespread” in this country for years.

Klassen said research by Dr. Colin Gill at the federal agriculture facility in Lacombe had determined that medium-rare cooking of adulterated cuts was adequate to ensure food safety.

“There wouldn’t be much point in cooking it to 71 C,” he said.

“The tenderness would be lost cooking it to that temperature.”

So you and Health Canada duke it out, and let consumers know if you ever come to some sort of evidence-based recommendation. In the meantime, I expect the usual platitudes about how consumers are responsible for cleaning, cooking, chilling and separating, with no mention of the other point the World Health Organization includes, which is sourcing food from safe sources: how would anyone know if the beef they are buying is from the XL plant?

Another nagging issue is: should the meat at the XL plant have been sent to a landfill – which much of it was – or should it have been further processed at a federally inspected facility? That is supposedly why those inspectors are there with their E. coli vision goggles.

Alberta Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith’s response to a Red Deer man’s tweet questioning whether tainted XL Foods meat could be saved to feed the poor instead of being sent to a landfill put the politician on the defensive.

Smith said she made a mistake and has learned a lesson about social media.

But beef that tests positive for E. coli O157:H7 is routinely diverted to cooked products like canned meat.

As usual, a PR stormfest could be minimized if the rules were clearly laid out and managers/bureaucrats/farmers/retailers got past the trust me mode and instead just said, this is what we do and why we do it.

16 sick with E. coli O157; XL beef debacle highlights shared complacency between Canadian government and industry

The number of confirmed sick people linked to beef from the XL plant in Alberta has risen to 16, the plant is eager to reopen but a former employee says CFIA sucks at inspection, and major media taunt pretty much everyone, especially the terrible communication from government types.

André Picard of the Globe and Mail says that with 16 people sick with E. coli O157:H7, “It’s not the most lethal public-health problem we have ever had in this country, but the
response has to rank among the most ridiculous.

“The response to tainted beef from officialdom has largely been buffoonery: The Agri-Business Minister chowing down on beef at a Rotary luncheon at the height of the crisis; the Alberta Premier saying her 10-year-old daughter has eaten beef every day since the recall; the Wildrose Leader saying the suspect meat should be used to feed the poor and so on.

“The clear message behind these “don’t worry, be happy” displays is that the interests of business matter more than the health of consumers. Sadly, the anti-consumer bias is built into our government structure.

“We have a federal Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Business, and Gerry Ritz has played the industry-booster role well, repeatedly expressing his concern for XL Foods, the cattle industry and the economy of Brooks, Alta. But he has been all but silent on those who have been sickened and on the safety of consumers more generally.

“What we don’t have is a minister of food to give voice to the millions who actually eat food and a Canadian Food Inspection Agency not under the ministerial thumb and whose overriding priority is ensuring safe and pathogen-free food on our dinner tables.

“Our political leaders – federal and provincial – behave as if food safety is solely the responsibility of individual consumers, and it is troubling that they are using public agencies to deliver this wrong-headed message.

“Consumers should not be responsible for cooking their meat to death to kill E.coli any more than they should be responsible for pasteurizing their own milk or boiling their tap water before drinking it.

“Food-safety regulations should be designed and enforced to protect the public, not industry. The folks at Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency should be allowed to do their jobs, unfettered. They should not be reduced to issuing asinine press releases to mollify the powers that be.”

What follows is finger-pointing from various media accounts.

One consultant lobbyist who is also a communications expert who did not want to be named (how Canadian) told The Hill Times last week that Minister of Agriculture Gerry Ritz’s strategy is worse than when more than 23 people died in 2008 from listeriosis.

The lobbyist added, Mr. Ritz has no effective key messages that he’s been delivering. “I mean what’s the message track? You can’t just repeat that public safety is our number one priority while people are falling over sick around the country and puking their guts out. There’s no credibility.”

A former XL Foods Inc. manager  who now works as a food safety consultant, told CBC News federal inspectors lack sufficient training.

Former XL Foods quality assurance manager Jacci Dorran said CFIA inspectors often knew less about their own food safety requirements than her employees.

Dorran worked at XL Foods for 10½ years until August 2006.

Dorran said she watched as the CFIA was created in 1997 and followed its evolution.

“It was very common that my staff was training the CFIA,” said Dorran.

“They weren’t necessarily going out into the plant. They might just show up there and read the paper, do the crossword puzzles,” she said.

“They need to be helping the meat industry so we don’t get to this point.”

Dorran said the CFIA problem started when the CFIA started requiring plants to have “hazard analysis critical control point” (HACCP) plans.

“The new philosophy is give us a bunch of paperwork and then we spend more time filling out paperwork on how we’re supposed to fix it other than actually being out on the floor and fix it ourselves — that really bothered me.”

It also emerged that XL is fighting allegations that one of its plants was the source eight years ago of tainted meat that left a young child severely disabled.

Federal government reports indicate as many as 26 other people may also have become sick in 2004 from the same genetic strain of bacteria found in product that a lawsuit claims came from an XL Foods facility.

The company argues it bears no liability for a Winnipeg boy who a legal action claims lost mobility in three limbs, suffers developmental delays and endures severe, ongoing pain caused by eating food containing ground meat tainted with the potentially-fatal bacteria.

Kathy Richard says a few bowls of hamburger soup her grandson ate landed him in hospital for 17 months and left him with no hope of a normal life.

“He was a muscular, little two-and-a-half year old who loved to wrestle and ride his toy motorcycle,” Richard said.

“Now he’s in a wheelchair, wears diapers, and has to be fed through a tube in his stomach.”

Richard is angry that XL Foods is accepting responsibility for the current E. coli cases, but blaming her daughter for what happened eight years ago.

“It’s upsetting,” she said.

“I wonder how they were able to make the same mistake. Did they not learn from the last time?”

Richard says she calls her grandson a “miracle boy,” who managed to survive his medical ordeal after receiving a kidney transplant.

But she said he still suffers from occasional seizures and is only able to communicate by making noises that family members and caregivers understand.