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XL beef recall revealed ‘weak safety culture’

A new regime of surprise spot checks on food plants has been pledged following the review of last year’s massive recall from one of Canada’s biggest beef slaughterhouses — a review that roasts the plant, and its inspectors, for a “weak food safety culture.”

The report from the federally-appointed independent review panel on the 2012 recall, publicly released Wednesday, found responsibilities towards food safety programs at the former XL Foods plant at Brooks, Alta. “were not always met” by plant staff and Canadian Food Inspection Agency staff alike.

The panel, led by British Columbia’s former chief veterinary officer Dr. Ron Lewis, also found “a relaxed attitude towards applying mandatory procedures” among staff and inspectors at the Brooks plant — now owned and operated by Brazilian meat-packing giant JBS.

Responding Wednesday to the panel report, federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz announced $16 million will be budgeted over the next three years to set up inspection verification teams (IVTs) to “oversee the performance of Canada’s entire food inspection system.”

The teams are to conduct “unannounced spot checks” at plants across the country, the government said. The IVT concept, it added, “will address several of the panel’s recommendations.”

Several other recommendations, the government said, have “already been addressed” through the CFIA’s “recently announced enhancements to E. coli controls.”

CFIA, Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada are to “work together to address all remaining recommendations of the expert advisory panel.”

“Alarm and confusion”

The recall began Sept. 4 last year when some product at another processor, Ginger Beef Choice in Calgary, was found to have E. coli O157:H7 that was soon tracked back to the XL plant. The same day, the U.S. Department of Agriculture also reported O157:H7 in trimmings exported from Brooks.

Since none of the beef from the two tested batches was found to be on Canadian store shelves, CFIA and XL chose not to mount a public recall at that time — an action which the panel said seemed “sound and reasonable” at that point.

By mid-October, however, the processing dates associated with 0157:H7-contaminated beef would expand, several recalls and alerts followed, about 4,000 tonnes of beef and beef products — representing at least 12,000 beef cattle — would be recalled in Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere, and 18 consumers in Canada had been found sickened by the same strain of E. coli.

Also, due to the suspension of the Brooks plant’s license from Sept. 27 to Oct. 23, cattle producers racked up added costs from keeping slaughter cattle on feed and saw cattle prices pressured.

The panel cited a study by the National Cattle Feeders Association which, on top of daily market quotations following the recalls and Brooks plant closure, estimated the losses to the beef industry at between $16 million and $27 million.

Furthermore, the panel said, “the rolling recalls, numerous public health hazard alerts, and extensive media coverage all created alarm and confusion” — and, eventually, “recall fatigue” — among consumers.

(That said, market development agency Canada Beef, in its separate response Wednesday, cited Statistics Canada data showing per capita beef consumption in Canada up 1.1 per cent in 2012 compared to 2011, and total beef consumption in Canada up 2.2 per cent in 2012 versus 2011.)

The panel noted, however, that the beef recall was triggered “well before any cases of human illness had been reported.”

Had the recall been launched only after illnesses were reported and contaminated products still on retail shelves, more consumers likely would have bought and eaten the product, “resulting in even more illnesses.”

However, the panel found XL “unprepared to handle what turned out to be the largest beef recall in Canadian history,” adding the company “had never conducted any mock recalls on a scale that remotely mimicked a real event.”

Having no full mock recalls “undoubtedly contributed to plant staff being unprepared to cope with what they later described as a ‘chaotic’ series of requests from CFIA,” the panel said.

“Critical days”

The panel criticized the company and CFIA staff for delays during which “contaminated product continued to be sold and eaten.”

Once CFIA had launched its investigation at Brooks, the panel found a span of “six critical days” had gone by before XL provided CFIA staff with “useful information” on distribution of product and product identification.

The information CFIA first received was “coded and could therefore not be acted upon by the regulator,” the panel said. Product distribution information was kept not at Brooks but at XL’s Edmonton head office, and “was slow to arrive at the plant.”

CFIA, meanwhile, didn’t co-ordinate all its requests through a single CFIA official, which left XL taking similar requests from different CFIA staff.

Well before the recall, however, the panel found that if XL had been analyzing its E. coli sampling data and responded appropriately to high-event periods for O157:H7 in late August, contaminated shipments “would likely have been contained and not left the plant.”

The panel also found XL wasn’t following its own “bracketing protocol,” in which containers processed immediately before and after a positive-tested batch with higher-than-acceptable results should have been identified and isolated.

“Given this lack of bracketing, once the contamination was investigated, all products from the dates of contamination had to be added” to the recall, the panel said.

The panel stressed in its report that its findings and conclusions “do not address civil or criminal liability,” noting the standards it applied in its review “are not legal ones.”

What’s to be done?

Among the review panel’s recommendations for changes in packing operations and the inspection process:

  • CFIA “must enforce its oversight responsibilities” at federally-inspected plants, including making sure mock recall procedures are outlined in a plant’s food safety enhancement program (FSEP) and “practised regularly;”
  • CFIA, in the event of a recall, should require a plant to provide distribution records that are “complete and in a format that is accessible;”
  • inspectors should take “extra vigilance” during relatively high shedding seasons for O157:H7;
  • CFIA should try to toughen requirements in a plant’s prerequisites for buying livestock — for example, making sure animals arriving at a plant have as little tag on their hides as possible and are “subject to minimal handling” at yards — though CFIA has only “limited jurisdiction” in such areas;
  • CFIA should work to develop confidentiality agreements with key stakeholders now to allow for “freer and timely exchange of important information;”
  • inspectors should devote “proportionately less time to evaluating specimens for pathology” and more time training on protocols that have “maximum impact” on food safety;
  • a new initial threshold should be set at five per cent-positive tests for E. coli O157:H7 in beef trim, at which point CFIA inspectors would “intensify” their inspection activities;
  • when a product recall kicks in, CFIA should “immediately formalize any requests to the plant in writing for labelling and distribution information on the suspect product,” and any later requests should be “prioritized and directed to the plant recall co-ordinator;”
  • Health Canada should give “prompt consideration” to a beef industry proposal to approve irradiation as a food safety intervention — a recommendation the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, which filed the proposal, said Wednesday it was “extremely pleased” to see in the report;
  • CFIA should require meat processors to have meat labelling and distribution information “at the plant and in an accessible format;” and
  • PHAC must “clearly be seen as the lead in communications with the public during a national foodborne emergency” — also a recommendation of the 2009 Weatherill report following the listeriosis outbreak in lunch meats in 2008.

The panel acknowledged concerns from the unions for XL and CFIA employees over production line speed at the Brooks plant — but the panel said it couldn’t reach any “definitive conclusion” on the possible effect of line speed on last fall’s contamination.

“Hourly line speed details for the days in question were not available to us,” the panel said. — Network

Related stories:
Independent panel named to review XL case, Feb. 8, 2013
XL Foods’ operator to become owner, Jan. 9, 2013

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