We’ve seen this scenario before.
Like an old movie that shows up again on late-night cable, the unfolding drama swirling around the temporarily closed XL Foods packing plant in Brooks, Alberta, Canada, is as predictable as the bad guy getting gunned down in the film’s final scene.
Only in this case, the bad guy lives to kill again.
That’s because the bad guy in this situation is a microbial pathogen that’s impossible to destroy and nearly impossible to control. As the accusations, finger-pointing and second-guessing continue to mount in the wake of an E. coli O157:H7-connected recall of beef products that, despite the outcry, hasn’t (thankfully) caused any deaths or any confirmed cases of people getting sick, the specifics of the story are starting to sound awfully familiar.
Basically, the principals involved have targeted three familiar tactics:
› Blame the government. As usually happens in any food-borne contamination incident, the first culprit called to task is the leaders of the agency tasked with keeping the food supply safe. In the XL Foods case, the leadership of Canada’s opposition Liberal Party and New Democratic Party both ripped into the Conservative government last week, with NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal leader Bob Rae claiming that officials of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency failed to alert Canadians in a timely manner about the tainted beef.
Mulcair referenced the 2008 Maple Leaf Foods listeria outbreak, which occurred on the watch of current Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and was blamed for the deaths of 23 people. Rae demanded to know why it took from Sept. 3, when routine testing at the U.S. border discovered E. coli O157:H7 in a beef shipment from XL Foods, until Sept. 16, when CFIA issued the first recall following a three-day on-site investigation.
CFIA responded as you’d imagine.
“We’ve acted aggressively based on a precautionary basis,” Dr. Brian Evans, CFIA chief food safety officer, told the Edmonton Journal. “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.”
Love that hindsight!
› Blame the inspectors. As critics complained about the long-term trend toward fewer bodies on the packing plant inspection lines, coupled with less visual inspection and more microbial testing, Pierre Lemieux, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz’s parliamentary secretary, argued there were 46 federal inspectors on the job at the XL Foods plant, which he said was a 20% increase over the last three years.
Plus, MacKay insisted that contrary to criticisms, some 700 food inspectors, 170 of them “specific to the subject of meat inspection,” have been added to the government rolls since 2006. “We have more investment directly into the issue of having more inspectors. We have increased CFIA’s budget by $156 million. There [are] more front-line workers and more safety for Canadians.”
Except when there’s a food-borne outbreak, of course.
› Blame the company. “The government’s policies of self-regulation have failed,” claimed Malcolm Allen, an Ontario New Democrat Member of Parliament. “In this case, XL failed to protect food safety. By the time the CFIA inspectors got involved, the contamination had spun out of control.”
Of course, CFIA chief Evans insisted that his agency had conducted a “pedal-to-the-metal” investigation, and notified XL Foods of the need to address certain deficiencies. He told CBC that the company took steps to address concerns about data analysis and protocols for dealing with meat testing positive for E. coli O157:H7. He added that his team found “no single factor” at the plant that could be identified as the cause of the contamination, although CFIA officials later admitted that in retrospect, it was a mistake not to require companies to analyze test results from beef trimmings so inspectors can “connect the dots to get the big picture” about a beef plant’s food safety status.
Basically, the reaction from all quarters in this and virtually every other food-borne outbreak is to blame everyone and everything—except the real villain: A microscopic bacteria that you can’t see, that you can’t reliably identify even with rigorous testing and that cannot be controlled at the source, or at the packing plant, or during further processing, or after packaging and distribution.
Problem is, you can’t call a news conference and blame bacteria for a public health problem. After more than a half century of incredible progress in treating infectious disease, we’ve come to assume that if anyone is struck by a bacterial infection for whatever reason and under any circumstances, someone, somewhere shares the blame.
But we really should be pointing a finger at the pathogen itself.
If only we could locate it ahead of time.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.