Health inspectors say tainted beef at XL Foods exceeded 5% of production on some days (with video)

By Matthew McClure, Calgary Herald October 4, 2012 6:15 AM

CALGARY – Canada’s food inspection agency admitted Wednesday that, on some days in late August and early September, over five per cent of the beef produced at an Alberta plant was likely testing positive for a potentially fatal bacteria.

Under industry norms and voluntary U.S. guidelines, that level of contamination should have prompted XL Foods Inc. to divert every single kilogram of meat to cooking or a landfill.

But instead, possibly tainted fresh product — now part of the country’s biggest ever beef recall — was shipped to restaurants and grocery stores across the continent.

“There were days, perhaps, that were over five per cent,” said Richard Arsenault, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s director of meat inspections.

“When we have something like this, we know the answer to the question. We’re not going to pretend we got it right. We’re going to do everything we can to get it right moving forward.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service issued guidelines to packers south of the border in May to divert all product if five per cent of a day’s production tests positive for E. coli 157: H7 because it indicates tainted product is very likely to be slipping through undetected.

“A systemic breakdown of the slaughter dressing operation has occurred and has created an insanitary condition that’s applicable to all parts of the beef carcass,” the guideline said.

The document said almost two-thirds of the U.S. industry’s large players — including Cargill Inc., which operates a plant in High River — were already meeting that mark.

Asked if the agency would now impose mandatory testing and diversion rules on the meat packing industry, Arsenault deferred.

“I won’t predict that outcome until I can sit down and write and get the signatures, but we are certainly going to have the lessons applied across the board,” he said.

“If that means we will issue guidance or instructions, we are certainly not going to hesitate from doing that.”

Debate about the lack of any firm guidelines or standards in Canada for diverting potentially contaminated product dominated Wednesday’s question period and was the topic of an emergency debate.

“Is this the kind of self-regulation that the Conservatives think will actually protect Canadians or are we just waiting for the next disaster?” New Democrat Leader Thomas Mulcair asked.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper replied it was up to the CFIA, not politicians, to decide how the industry should be regulated.

The agency’s own timeline indicates the CFIA was unaware of the festering food crisis until Sept. 4, when U.S. officials alerted them they had intercepted a shipment of contaminated beef trim at a Montana border crossing and Canadian inspectors found a tainted lot at an unidentified Calgary facility.

Still, inspectors would wait two days to formally ask XL to see the test results that would reveal the problem and four more for them to be provided by the company.

By the time the data were finally supplied, at least five people had fallen ill after eating steak at an Edmonton barbecue that was tainted with bacteria that’s since been genetically linked to the Brooks facility.

XL Foods officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but CFIA president George Da Pont said there were delays by the company in providing the results, something proposed legislation would address.

“We have limited authority to compel immediate documentation,” Da Pont said.

“There’s a provision in that (Safe Food for Canadians Act) to authorize us to do that.”

In the wake of a second set of positive tests at the Sweetgrass, Mont., border crossing on Sept. 12 that prompted a U.S. ban on XL product, the CFIA launched an in-depth review that would find the company wasn’t always following its stated “bracketing” protocol of diverting each lot or carcass before and after one that tested positive.

“There were a few instances that we could document where they did not divert either the one before or the one after,” Da Pont said.

The CFIA has stated it acted swiftly in identifying problems during the on-site review and issuing seven corrective orders to the company.

But a 2005 audit of the plant by U.S. officials indicates that at least one of those problems — considerable dripping condensation above the trim line — was pinpointed at least seven years ago, along with CFIA’s lackadaisical attitude about maintenance issues.

“The only recorded incident of condensation . . . had no preventive measures and the only corrective action recorded was that no product was involved,” the Food Safety Inspection Service auditor noted.

“Most other non-compliances had the same types of incomplete descriptions.”

While Da Pont dismissed the condensation problem as unlikely to cause meat contamination, Arsenault appeared to differ in his view.

“Condensation can be an issue if it’s not managed properly,” he said.

“Where you may have problems is if your environment can’t chill down fast enough, if the humidity allows for that bacteria to grow.”

CFIA records show that a dozen lots of contaminated beef also eluded detection by the Brooks plant’s testing program in 2010 and 2011, and were only caught later by inspectors at an XL operation in Calgary that was processing carcasses.

“I think it says that something got out and that our follow up surveillance system caught it as it’s designed to do,” Da Pont said.

While he’s been absent from the House of Commons all week, Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz visited the Brooks facility Wednesday and spoke to reporters in Calgary afterward.

Ritz said the plant will resume operations only after the CFIA has confirmed to him in writing that public health will not be at risk.

“While we understand that ranchers, farmers and industry need a strong processing sector, we all agree that the success of the industry must be founded on food safety,” Ritz said.

“Canadian consumers are and will continue to be our first priority.”

Arsenault said seven corrective-action requests have been issued to the company, but to date none of them have been completely satisfied.

The agency suspended the operating licence of the country’s second-largest beef slaughter and processing facility last Thursday, and Arsenault said XL won’t be allowed to resume operations until all the deficiencies have been corrected

More than 1,500 items and an estimated 1.4 million kilograms of meat have now been recalled from grocery chains across the country and in 40 states south of the border.

Alberta’s health authority is investigating nine cases of E.coli poisoning that either are or could be linked to tainted meat from the XL plant. In Saskatchewan, public health officials have said there are 13 patients who have fallen ill, including three whose food histories indicate they ate product that has since been recalled.

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Original source article: Health inspectors say tainted beef at XL Foods exceeded 5% of production on some days (with video)