Month long Canadian beef recall continues

Oct 19, 2012

The ongoing saga of the Canadian beef recall has surprisingly old roots. This fact has drawn a lot of criticism and accusations of mishandling. And as with any food recall on this scale, finger-pointing abounds as groups try to ferret out a culprit.

The recall of beef processed in the XL Lakeside packing plant, owned by XL Foods and located in Brooks, Alberta, Canada, began back in mid-September because of possible E. coli 0157:H7 contamination. Since then, the recall has been expanded nearly two-dozen times to include thousands of products distributed all across Canada and in 41 different U.S. states. At least 15 Canadians have been reported sickened from contaminated meat, though as yet no Americans have fallen ill related to this recall.

Finding fault

The current recall is to date the largest of its kind for the Canadian beef industry. A number of organizations are and have been trying to lay blame on one group or another.

Doug O’Halloran, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, the union representing the laid off employees of the Brooks facility, has gone on record blaming XL Foods for a broken food safety culture. Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, an umbrella group composed of unions and employee organizations, derided the culture of XL Foods’ management, saying, “There is a culture in that plant that puts priority on quantity over quality and until that changes, we’re going to continue to struggle.”

XL Foods representatives have voiced disappointment over the accusations coming from the union and other worker groups, reiterating their dedication to employees and consumers alike.

Many consumer groups in Canada have insisted that the contamination stemmed from insufficient inspectors/inspections being conducted at the plant. In an opinion piece for the Calgary Herald, Alex Stanoprud, an inspection manager of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), pointed out that “[not] even an army of inspectors can detect bacteria on a product once it gets there.” He instead stressed the necessity for meat processing plants to adhere to strict sanitation protocols and suggested the permanent integration of official auditors into the industry.

On the southern side of the boarder here at home, ideas about who or what is to blame have circulated as well. The issue of labeling—an apparently popular battle cry in the world of U.S. food safety concerns—has been popular.

One op-ed piece from Food Safety News blamed the fact that mechanically tenderized meat is not required to be labeled as such in the U.S. for the potential to allow the spread of food-borne contamination such as the XL Foods E. coli recall to unknowing consumers. R-CALF has claimed the contaminated Canadian beef is a prime example of how and why Mandatory Country of Origin Labeling is necessary and valuable.

Many similar “labeling ensures food safety” arguments have and are being made on blogs and other social media regarding the issue.

This current crisis is not the first time XL Foods’ products have had food safety problems. USDA records show that meat from a number of XL Foods’ plants has been blocked from import into the U.S. off and on for over a decade. The majority of the import bans came following regular audits by U.S. inspectors which found unsanitary working conditions at the plants which invited contamination.

Most of the sanitation-related violations came from equipment being improperly cleaned or not cleaned at all, but some also involved structural deficiencies at the plants, such as old and peeling paint flaking down onto carcasses in coolers.

The Brooks plant specifically, has a storied past of food safety issues. Before it was acquired by XL Foods in 2009, the Brooks facility received barely-passable audits for E. coli protocols in 2001. In 2002, it was delisted as an acceptable source of beef destined for the U.S. after auditors inspected 15 carcasses post skinning and found all had “visible fecal contamination.”

Timeline of a recall

Though the issue is still ongoing, below is a general timeline of the events in this long and drawn-out process.

August 30:

A routine sample was pulled from raw beef from Canadian food processing company XL Foods at the U.S./Canadian border.

September 3:

E. coli 0157: H7 was found in the pulled sample late in the day by the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS).

September 4:

FSIS contacts CFIA with the results of their sampling. Additional samples collected at the border were tested by FSIS for E. coli and three more were found positive between Sept. 4 and Sept. 12.

September 13:

Beef imports from the Brooks plant into the U.S. were halted. With nowhere to send cattle which might otherwise have gone to the Brooks plant, the influx of Canadian slaughterready fed cattle into the U.S. jumps in that area.

September 17:

XL Foods announced voluntary recall of products for possible contamination of E. coli. The company would expand the number and scope of products, locations and brands affected by the recall numerous times in the coming weeks

September 22:

U.S. officials confirm potentially contaminated meat entered U.S. food supply

September 27:

CFIA suspended the operating license of XL Foods’ processing plant in Brooks, effectively shuttering the plant pending further investigation. According to CFIA when closing the plant:

“The detection of E. coli in slaughter facilities is not uncommon, and plants are expected to have adequate measures in place to monitor higher than normal detection rates and modify control measures accordingly.

“This trend analysis was not always conducted consistently at the [Brooks] facility. In addition, CFIA noted deviations from the company’s documented E. coli O157:H7 control measures and sampling and testing procedures. The company was unable to demonstrate through its documentation that it was consistently and effectively implementing its agreed upon control program.”

XL Foods employees working at the Brooks plant continued to be paid, despite having no work to do, part of what the company described as its dedication to its workers and the community of Brooks.

Additionally, the recall list expanded to include an estimated 890,000 pounds of beef shipped to the U.S. used in ground formulations. Actions get underway with U.S. agencies and grocery stores to locate and recall the potentially contaminated product.

October 11:

CFIA approved a limited reopening of the shuttered Brooks plant. However, no new animals could be slaughtered and no meat could leave the plant under this “progressive restart” of the plant.

“Beginning today, CFIA officials will monitor the plant’s food safety control in action by allowing the plant to process carcasses under continued strict conditions,” read the official CFIA announcement of the move.

“This next step in the CFIA’s staged approach will allow CFIA experts to fully assess the facility’s E. coli safeguards in action. The plant will not be permitted to resume normal operation until the CFIA confirms in writing that it is safe to do so.”

October 12:

USDA estimates of how much potentially contaminated meat coming from the Brooks plant into the U.S. during the target time period was raised to at least 2.5 million pounds.

October 13:

XL announced it would have to temporarily lay off 2,000-2,200 employees at the Brooks plant. The motivation behind the announcement of the layoffs was the inability of CFIA to indicate when the plant’s license would be reinstated and the stagnating limitations placed upon it under CFIA’s approved reopening of the plant.

Unions representing the workers condemn XL Foods as displaying poor management and said there was a broken food safety culture at the plant. The community of Brooks voiced concern over the potential impact of so many citizens suddenly out of work in the roughly 13,000-person city.

October 14:

The announced layoffs were partially rescinded and 800 employees were recalled to the plant. This change was prompted by the fact CFIA inspectors had nothing to inspect with all the employees gone. The returned employees were permitted to cut the approximately 5,100 carcasses already at the plant for CFIA inspection and more stringent E. coli testing protocols.

October 17:

The respite was short-lived and the recalled employees were again laid off. With CFIA ruling that no additional animals be slaughtered while under the limited reopening, the 800 employees eventually ran out of work to do. No word was given on when new animals would be allowed to be slaughtered.

Late in the day, JBS USA, from their Greeley, CO location, made an offer to take over management of XL Foods at the Brooks location with an option to buy the troubled Brooks plant as well as XL Foods’ U.S. and Canadian plants. According to Cameron Bruett of JBS USA, the two companies signed the agreement turning over management to JBS and providing for the purchasing options shortly thereafter. XL Foods will continue managing their other Canadian holdings during that time.

The purchase options would include the Brooks facility, as well as packing plants in Calgary, Alberta, Omaha, NE, and Nampa, ID.

October 18:

JBS took over management control of the Brooks plant.

“We believe our experienced team will provide an invaluable asset in the management of XL Lakeside and we look forward to exploring our options to purchase XL assets in the near future.”

CFIA officials, as reported in the Calgary Herald, claim the move will alter neither the investigation timeline nor the requirements the agency has set for the plant’s full reopening.

An up-to-date list of recalled items can be found at CFIA’s website at inspection. American consumers can also call the USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline for information at 888/674-6854 from 10am to 4pm Eastern Time. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor