Independent panel named to review XL case

Vet, health officer, food safety exec to probe E. coli outbreak

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The federal government has named its panel for an independent review of last fall’s massive E. coli-related beef recall at Alberta’s XL Foods.

The government on Friday named Dr. Ron Lewis, British Columbia’s former chief veterinary officer, to chair a three-member panel for “a review of events and circumstances related to the XL Foods Inc. E. coli O157:H7 investigation and recall.”

The panel’s final report and any resulting recommendations “will be made public once completed,” the government said Friday.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency pulled the federal operating license from XL’s plant at Brooks, Alta. on Sept. 27 last year upon findings that some beef shipped from the plant was contaminated with O157:H7 bacteria that sickened at least 18 people in Canada.

The findings began with two positives caught Sept. 4 during routine testing of samples from the Brooks plant, one each in Canada and in the U.S. As the investigation continued, the CFIA began issuing health hazard alerts to the public, distributors and retailers starting Sept. 16.

The plant’s wares, including ground beef, muscle cuts and processed products, were subject to major recalls and the plant subject to “corrective actions” before CFIA allowed the plant to resume operations in late October under “enhanced” agency oversight.

XL in mid-October signed a management services agreement with the U.S. arm of Brazil’s JBS, the world’s biggest meat packer, to run the Brooks plant. JBS in January exercised its option to buy the plant and other XL beef assets in Alberta and the U.S. for US$100 million.

The Brooks plant on Jan. 14 resumed slaughter and processing operations under “normal” CFIA oversight, the government said, noting samples have “consistently” not detected O157:H7 and all outstanding “corrective action requests” are addressed.

“As our government committed, there will be an independent review that will be made public,” federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said in a statement Friday. “We look forward to receiving the panel’s report so that we may review its recommendations.”

Canada’s food safety system “remains among the best in the world, but events such as the (XL recall) underscore the importance of ongoing review and continuous improvement,” the government said.

“Existing resources”

The independent panel, the government said Friday, is tasked with making recommendations “within the existing resources” of the CFIA to “strengthen prevention strategies and regulatory oversight.”

Specifically, the panel is to examine “events, circumstances, and factors” that contributed to the E. coli outbreak, including preventive control programs, inspection policies and protocols and information exchanges between CFIA and “food safety system partners” such as XL and foreign food safety and health regulators.

The panel is also to consider whether CFIA or XL could “reasonably have detected the contamination prior to beef products entering into distribution and commerce.”

The panelists are also to review the effectiveness of CFIA’s response “in light of the additional resources provided to it since 2006″ — including but not limited to the effectiveness of the agency’s “prevention, detection, recall response, incident management and investigative activities, as well as their collaboration and communication with one another, the public and stakeholders.”

Lewis, the panel chair, was British Columbia’s CVO from 1999 to 2009 and now chairs the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association’s editorial committee, which oversees the content of the Canadian Veterinary Journal and Canadian Journal of Veterinary Research.

His panel also includes Dr. Andre Corriveau, the Northwest Territories’ chief public health officer, an adjunct professor in medicine at the University of Calgary and a clinical professor at the University of Alberta’s school of public health.

The third panelist is Dr. Ronald Usborne, the retired vice-president of quality assurance and food safety for beef patty processor Caravelle Foods, which operates in Alberta and Ontario and was taken over by Cargill in 2004. Usborne has also taught students at the University of Guelph.

The government, Ritz said, “supports this independent review process” and remains “committed to the continuous improvement of Canada’s strong food safety systems that allow Canadian consumers to shop with confidence.”

Related stories:
XL Foods’ operator to become owner, Jan. 9, 2013
CFIA, CCA rip claims of ignored tasks at XL, Nov. 30, 2012
XL’s Brooks beef plant reopens, Oct. 23, 2012

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