Massive Canadian Beef Recall Puts Pressure on CFIA and Raises Questions on Timing of Plant Closing

The massive recall of E. coli-contaminated beef from Canadian processor XL Foods in Alberta now encompasses more than 1,700 beef products and is considered the largest in the country’s history. At least 11 illnesses in four provinces have been linked to the outbreak. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has estimated that some 1.1 million pounds of beef from the potentially contaminated lots have been been imported to the United States.

Criticism of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and its handling of the outbreak has focused on the fact that the first recall and public notice of the problem was not issued until September 16, three weeks after the suspected slaughter took place and a week after affected products began to hit store shelves.

But that’s not the real problem, said Rick Holley, Ph.D., professor of food science at the University of Manitoba. “The laboratory time required for analysis to take place is usually five days,” he pointed out. “Most regulatory agencies want a repeat, so that’s another five days, and transfer from the site at which samples are taken to the lab takes a day each time. That’s your 12 days right there.”

Where CFIA fell down on the job, Holley believes, is in not closing the XL plant sooner. After the first of a series of recalls was announced on September 16, the plant was not closed until September 28. “What in God’s name is going on?” he asked. “This plant has 40 inspectors and at least another 4 to 6 veterinarians. If the food safety program at that plant is being appropriately interrogated at regular intervals, as it should be, that reaction time should not have been more than a couple of days. This, I think, is the issue that the CFIA has to respond to. Why did it take so long to close that plant?”

In June, the Canadian Senate began consideration of the Safe Foods For Candians Act, which will consolidate the authorities of the Fish Inspection Act, the Canada Agricultural Products Act, the Meat Inspection Act, and the food provisions of the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act. Holley said the bill is likely to pass, which will make it easier for CFIA to do inspections.

“But there it stops,” he added. “I like the U.S. law because it has requirements for plants above a certain size to put into place Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) requirements. Our law doesn’t. I have a great deal of respect for the way the CFIA is organized and operates, but there’s a critical need for both CFIA and the agencies in the U.S. to recognize that they have to get better at a proactive approach to oversight of these food safety systems.”  

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