E. coli disaster rests with federal officials

If we’re lucky, the nightmare will be over by the time we finish off the last scraps of turkey and ham about to grace our tables this weekend.

If we’re lucky, the nightmare will be over by the time we finish off the last scraps of turkey and ham about to grace our tables this weekend.

The present problems with E. coli and beef processing should serve as a dramatic reminder of how important our food inspection system is in Canada.

So far, several cases of E.coli have been connected to the giant XL Foods cattle processing plant in Brooks. Since this whole disturbing thing began to unfold a few weeks ago, more than 300 meat products have been recalled in most provinces, and at last count, in about 40 U.S. states.

At this rate, everyone wanting to buy beef is now having a difficult time trying to figure out what’s safe and what’s not. Consumers should check with their store as to where the beef it sells came from.

Never before have Canadians seen such a massive recall of meat. How can this happen?

Is it too much to expect that our food inspection system should find defective products before they reach the consumer, before they leave the plant?

While Albertans saw Premier Alison Redford defending Alberta’s cattle industry on the weekend, in fact it’s the federal government that’s in charge of food inspection via the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Where was the federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz just before the whole affair began to pick up speed last week? Well, he was saying it wasn’t a real serious matter because no illnesses had been connected to the bad meat.

Tell that today to the Alberta cattle industry, the 2,000 or so workers at XL Foods in Brooks who are out of work until the now-shuttered plant cleans up, the consumers who are certainly wondering if it’s safe to buy beef, and last but not least, the people who have became ill with E. coli.

E. coli, when it’s misbehaving, can cause food poisoning and do serious harm to people.

Two issues are seeing a little more daylight given the XL Foods situation. One is the concern that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is leaving more and more monitoring up to the companies it supervises and, even though Ritz says there are more inspectors out there, there are expected to be future job losses at CFIA as Ottawa reduces federal jobs.

When a plant as big as XL (it slaughters 5,000 cattle a day) is closed, it affects food security and supplies. More and more, the idea of growing and producing food closer to home makes sense.

XL Foods processes about one-third of Canadian beef.

Media reports say the E. coli from XL Foods meat was first noticed during a routine U.S. border inspection on Sept. 3.

CFIA learned of the problem the next day but production was allowed to continue. Inspectors believed the problem had been caught.

But then CFIA found more E. coli on Sept. 12 and the border was closed to XL shipments to the U.S.

It wasn’t until Sept. 16 that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency started telling the public that meat from the plant was being recalled.

As problems grew, and more and more recalls were issued, CFIA finally took the drastic measure of suspending XL’s operating licence last Friday.

And since then, dozens more meat products have been added to the long list of possibly contaminated meat from XL Foods.

I received an automated phone call to my residence from the Red Deer Costco about 10 days ago, telling me I may have purchased tainted meat. I checked my receipt and it matched the initial beef recall first issued. Fortunately, that meat was still in my freezer and I appreciated Costco’s warning system.

Don’t be confused.

Alberta beef continues to be the best there is. When things go wrong in the processing, we can hardly blame the producers.

Information continues to change rapidly and we’re told to be patient for answers as to how all this could have happened. We’re told to let the food inspection agency focus on the immediate task of ensuring XL Foods meets all the conditions it needs to so the plant can reopen.

But once we do get past the crisis, the very toughest of questions need to be answered by those we entrust with ensuring our food is safe, starting at the top, with Agriculture Canada and the minister.

Mary-Ann Barr is the Advocate’s assistant city editor. She can be reached by phone at 403-314-4332, by email at barr@bprda.wpengine.com and on Twitter @maryannbarr1.