Food agency defends delayed beef recall after E. coli alert

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is defending its decision not to issue an immediate recall on beef products coming out of the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta., after being alerted to a positive E. coli test.

Canadian officials alerted to positive E. coli result on Sept. 4, but no recall issued until Sept. 16

Concerns about an expanding beef recall and the way it's been handled by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is putting pressure on the federal government for an explanation 3:40

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is defending its decision not to issue an immediate recall on beef products coming out of the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta.

On Friday, the CFIA added whole muscle cuts to the list of more than 250 products.

Officials say they were alerted on Sept. 4 to a positive E. coli test in beef shipped to the United States taken the day before, but recalls in Canada didn’t start until Sept. 16.

Canadian inspectors also had a positive E. coli test in a shipment that went to a small plant in Calgary on Sept. 4, which was part of the same shipment out of the XL Foods plant in Brooks.

The CFIA’s Dr. Brian Evans said at a press conference Friday morning that because the shipment was contained and didn't make it to the retail level, officials didn’t feel a need to issue an immediate recall, instead they went to the plant in Brooks to conduct a in-depth review.

XL Foods timeline

Sept. 3: Random testing at the U.S. border finds E. coli in a shipment from Alberta's XL Foods. That shipment is placed on "hold," as is standard policy, and triggers testing of the next 15 shipments from the company. Of those, two test positive.

Sept. 4: A shipment from XL Foods to a small Calgary plant tests positive for E. coli.

Sept. 4: U.S. officials inform CFIA, which has also discovered E. coli through routine testing.

Sept. 12: CFIA is informed of two more positive E. coli tests in meat crossing the U.S. border.

Sept. 13: CFIA investigation team goes to the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta.

Sept. 16: CFIA issues first recall. In the following nine days, the recall is expanded six times as more information becomes available.

Sept. 25: U.S. bans import of beef from XL Foods.

Sept. 27: CFIA  temporarily suspends XL Foods licence.

The review determined deficiencies that suggested they needed to take further action, which led to a series of countrywide recalls.

"I believe we've acted responsibly once we had evidence that was suggestive," said Evans. 

"We've acted aggressively based on a precautionary basis, and we will continue to review our activities into the future, obviously, to determine if in hindsight there was anything that we missed that might have expedited that. At this time I'm not aware that that exists, but we will do a lessons learned for sure." 

CFIA has suspended the operating licence of XL Foods at the Brooks plant that has been linked to more than 250 beef products for fear of E. coli contamination.

"The company took initial steps to ensure the safety of food being produced and at the time committed to additional steps to deal with all issues and prevent recurrence," the agency said.

"However, based on information provided by XL Foods Inc. on Sept. 26, as well as through CFIA inspector oversight, the CFIA has determined that these deficiencies have not been completely corrected. To date, the company has not adequately implemented agreed upon corrective actions and has not presented acceptable plans to address longer-term issues."

Employees concerned

Many of the  2,200 people employed at XL Foods in Brooks are not working today because of the shutdown.

Wani Golloko, who works in quality assurance at the plant, says workers are getting worried.

"When we’re not having many hours, it’s very very hard," Golloko explained. "It makes a lot of people think maybe, if the company is going to shut down, maybe they will start to look for something different. But I’m hoping the company can work this out, so everybody can go back to work."

Golloko said the company is expected to provide more information to employees on Monday.

Products at the plant are being held by the CFIA to be tested for the bacteria, the agency announced late Thursday night.

The plant will not be able to resume operations until corrective measures imposed by the CFIA have been undertaken.

XL Foods also expanded its voluntary recall to all raw meat produced on Aug. 24, 27, 28, 29 and Sept. 5, the CFIA said in a release. The agency said it will alert consumers as additional products are identified, and more recalls are expected in the next few days.

"This will lead to a series of recall announcements over the next few days as implicated products are identified and traced," the CFIA said in a release.

Ag minister wants quicker response

Alberta’s minister of agriculture commented on the progress of the recall Friday.

"It is disappointing that we're not a little bit further along here but I'm certainly satisfied that everything that can be done is being done," Verlyn Olson said. "I’m in regular contact with [federal Agriculture] Minister Ritz and he's keeping me up to date on what's going on on the federal side. The priority is we need the people at XL to work with the CFIA to address any and all concerns as quickly as possible so that our producers can deliver their product."

Olson also voiced his concern about how the situation will affect beef producers in Alberta.

"We have an obvious concern for our producers because they have to have a place to send their product and there will be," Olson said. "We're seeing a little bit of a short-term impact on this right now there's some evidence of that, but a lot of guys, the product that they're delivering now they've already had prices fixed so I think we're going to have to take into the next quarter to see what the overall impact is."

He also said the province has business risk management programs in place to help producers in these type of situations. 

Edmonton E. coli cases linked to steaks

Alberta Health Service officials announced earlier this week that four people in Edmonton got sick from E. coli after eating Kirkland brand striploin steaks purchased at a Costco outlet in Edmonton.

Officials were able to determine the steaks were related to the illnesses because it was a specific strain of E. coli.

All four people have recovered, according to Alberta Health's Bart Johnson.

CFIA said the steaks came from the XL Foods plant in Brooks, but health officials aren't sure whether the E. coli came from a metal meat tenderizing machine used at the Costco store or the XL plant.

The store has said it would no longer use the tenderizing machine.

Health officials have reported nine E. coli cases in Alberta over the past week, but investigators are still trying to determine the source in five of them — four cases in Calgary and one in central Alberta.

More than 250 meat products have already been pulled from Canadian stores after the company initiated a voluntary recall.

On Friday, The CFIA added whole muscle cuts to the list. 

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which banned imports of beef from the company, extended its public health alert about beef from the company's Lakeside plant to stores in 30 states, including retail giant Wal-Mart.

Products at XL Foods Inc. in Brooks, Alta., are currently under detention by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency until they can be tested for E. coli. (CBC)

The Brooks, Alta., plant employs more than 2,200 unionized workers.

Brooks Mayor Martin Shields hopes the plant is up and running again soon, as it has a large payroll in the town.

"It's obviously a situation where something needs to be cleaned up or done to get the licence reinstated, and I'm sure that XL beef will — as a company that's worked hard to provide a good product — will do that."

Recall questions in Parliament

In the House of Commons' question period Friday, NDP Deputy Leader Libby Davies said the suspension of XL's licence was "a clear indication that the Conservative policy of a self-policing industry has failed." 

"It's put XL workers out of work, it has failed public safety and it's hurt the industry overall. Pulling front-line CFIA inspectors was wrong," Davies said. 

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz denied his department has cut inspectors. "This industry she's talking about had the help of 46 inspection staff on a daily basis in that plant," Ritz told MPs. 

In response to a later question, Ritz said the timeline of the CFIA's response to the e-coli report is proof the system works. "There is no endemic situation out there from  E. coli. E-coli exists across the country on a daily basis. Having said that, this government is focused on food safety. We want to go beyond what consumers expect," Ritz said.

The meat recall also came up in the House of Commons during question period Thursday.

NDP agriculture critic Malcolm Allen said Canadians are worried and blamed recent cuts to the CFIA for the late recall, saying "the lack of details is disturbing."  

"I doubt whether the minister knows Sept. 4 from Sept. 16, but what we do know is that American inspectors caught that contaminated meat, not Canadian inspectors, and that is a failure on the government's part," he said.