Simons: Glacial response of federal authorities to contaminated meat put public health at risk

By Paula Simons, Edmonton Journal September 28, 2012

EDMONTON – On Sept. 3, an American health inspector discovered beef slaughtered and packaged at the XL Lakeside packing plant in Brooks, Alberta, and shipped south of the border for sale was infected with unusually high levels of E. coli.The United States Food Safety and Inspection Service alerted its Canadian counterparts.

On Sept. 12, the Americans found more contamination in Lakeside beef. The next day, they decertified the Lakeside plant and blocked its exports to the U.S.

Not until Sept. 16, though, did the Canadian Food Inspection Agency finally issue a low-key public alert on this side of the border, warning Canadians not to eat, sell, or serve various ground beef products produced at Lakeside.

It issued no mandatory recall, but said XL had agreed to a voluntary one.

By that time, three Albertans had already been hospitalized for E. coli poisoning. Another two were seriously ill. Four cases were linked to steaks that came from the Brooks plant.

Yet the Lakeside plant went right on processing Alberta beef, for markets across the United States and Canada. XL, and its parent company, Edmonton-based Nillson Brothers, went on assuring consumers that its beef was safe.

Late Thursday, more than three weeks after American authorities first sounded the alarm, the CFIA took long-overdue, decisive action.

It suspended XL’s licence, citing the company for failing to correct deficiencies in its meat-handling.

But the damage to consumer confidence, and to the international reputation of Alberta’s prize beef, has already been done.

The American beef recall has spread to 30 states, and to premium cuts including roasts and steaks.

Friday morning, the CFIA expanded Canada’s voluntary recall to include all unbranded ground beef available for sale between Aug. 24 and Sept. 25, including that sold at local meat markets and gourmet butcher shops. Late Friday afternoon, the agency confirmed to the Journal that its recall now includes steaks and roasts.

Americans closed their borders to Brooks beef on Sept. 13.

Canadians, however, were allowed to go right on eating it.

Not only has the glacial response of federal authorities put public health at risk, their failure to warn the public and to act swiftly to stem the flow of potentially contaminated meat has dealt a blow to the integrity of Alberta beef, and to an industry that’s only just struggled back from the economic devastation caused by bovine spongiform encephalopathy: mad cow disease.

Did we learn nothing from the BSE crisis? Nothing makes consumers more suspicious, more wary, more paranoid, than any suggestion or hint of a cover up.

For weeks, CFIA officials erred on the side of caution and conservatism, quietly, painstakingly tracing the source of the contamination. But their caution seems calculated to protect the company, not Canadian consumers. That strategy has backfired spectacularly.

Now, Alberta consumers truly can’t know what beef, if any, is safe to eat.

Now, the Americans, who only fully reopened their borders to Alberta beef in 2007, have a fresh and legitimate reason to wonder if our meat is safe. We’ve handed perfect ammunition to American protectionist lobby groups like R-CALF, to start agitating for more export regulation.

Short-term, Alberta cattle producers face the prospect of significantly lower prices — since XL processes almost half of all Alberta’s production.Indeed, the XL shutdown demonstrates how vulnerable our beef supply chain is. Post-BSE, corporate concentration has left us almost entirely dependent on just two huge packing plants.

The long-term damage is harder to calculate.

Alberta’s beef is Alberta’s pride. This is a province where people sport “I love Alberta beef” buttons and bumper-stickers without irony. We all have a stake in Alberta beef. If we can’t restore public confidence in the brand, and quickly, we stand to lose more than just a few thousand pounds of raw meat.

Through all this, Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development has remained strangely quiet, insisting this was a limited problem at one federally regulated plant, and a federal responsibility.

In a Friday press conference, Agriculture Minister Verlyn Olson, far from chastising the CFIA, defended Ottawa’s handling of the issue and stressed he didn’t want to see over-regulation.

Yet while the province isn’t responsible for inspecting the XL plant, it is responsible for protecting the health of Alberta’s beef industry, and the health of Albertans. Instead of downplaying this debacle, the Redford government needs to show leadership. The era of shoot, shovel, and shut-up is over. Albertans deserve to know exactly what went wrong — and how to prevent it from happening again.

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