Commentary: Totally XL-ent adventure

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The food-borne illness outbreak and subsequent recall of beef products traced to the Brooks, Alberta, XL Foods plant last September wasn’t pretty.

As a result of the distribution of beef contaminated with pathogenic E. coli, some 4,000 tons of beef were recalled—the largest beef recall in Canadian history. A total of 18 people across Canada became ill and the plant was eventually closed down amid a loud and angry outcry from both the public and the media.

The outrage may be subsiding-the operative word being “maybe.”

Now under the ownership of JBS Canada,which took ownership in January, significant changes to the troubled plant have been completed, according to a CBC News report. About 60 different inspections have been conducted in the last few months, according to JBS Canada, and the plant is now shipping meat to Canadian, U.S. and Asian customers.

Officials with JBS Canada said that the facility had undergone more than 60 inspections in the last six months. And when a group of Canadian business and community leaders got to tour the “new” plant last week, the reviews were generally upbeat.

“I noticed fairly quickly there was a more positive atmosphere,” David Swann, agriculture critic for the Alberta Liberal Party, told CBC News. “There's more openness among management, they are starting to consider giving me some numbers about real issues—like the amount of meat they are throwing out [and] the number of tests that are positive.”

Among other issues, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency launched an investigation into the plant’s carcass deboning techniques, microbial controls, sanitation and sampling techniques after it was discovered that the particular strain of E. coli implicated in the recall had not been seen before in either Canada or the United States.It was later made public that the CFIA had previously issued seven corrective action requests to the plant and was monitoring them before the agency decided to shut the plant down.

Buried within the story was another key point, perhaps even more telling than the 60-something CFIA inspections: JBS customers—including McDonald's—demanded more information on how the plant was operating, and in fact conducted their own investigations.

JBS officials told the media that while its food-safety procedures have improved, a drastic overhaul wasn’t required.

“If you want to say there’s a super-dramatic change, no,” Willie Van Solkema, who leads the Canadian division of JBS, told CBC. “They've changed slightly, but we make sure that we are auditing ourselves and that we are doing what we say we are going to do when it comes to food safety.”

All onboard? Not really.

It all sounds good: New owner cleans up the plant, institutes positive changes, and the key constituents pronounce the problems solved.

Except for one constituency: Ordinary consumers. They’re not convinced everything’s quite so wonderful, as a sampling of their comments indicate—and keep in mind these are from a mainstream CBC News website, not some activist blog where you expect most people posting are anti-industry types:

  • “This industry is so corrupt they don't even want their names on the packaging. USA wants names of processors and sources on the packaging and the Canadian industry is fighting it as they love the anonymous labeling to hide the bad reputation.”
  • “I have to side with USA on this, as I do believe it is time that beef processing get the same labeling standards or better than dog food. On dog food I can see the country of origin, the brand, the supplier and contents inside. But crooked beef industry doesn't want accountability to the consumer.”
  • “Used to eat lots of beef and meat. Now not so much. Ironically, if I buy meat I look for USA’s or European product.”
  • “Back on the no beef wagon. And there is up to 234% tariff on USA beef imports that inflates Canadian prices. With only two players covering over 95% of the beef processing, it isn't very competitive.”
  • “Merriam-Webster defines infamous: ‘Having a reputation of the worst kind—notoriously evil.’ Works for me.”

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency came in for its share of criticism, too:

  • “I do not expect progress, as CFIA regs are like CRTC regs, designed to screw the consumer for racketeering of the market. No competition and high prices to us.”
  • “Hey, cuts to inspections and use of temp foreign workers saved money, right?”
  • “Wasn't the cuts that did it. It was CFIA not doing their job. Just a repeat of 2004 BSE under the Liberals but this time it was E.coli with Conservatives. Only real common denominator was CFIA.”
  • “It is rumored CFIA even knew of E.coli but did not disclose it to the public. The USDA disclosed it to protect Americans, [that’s] how it got out.”

Yikes.

JBS may have done a terrific job in revamping policies and procedures at the former XL plant to please their commercial customers. But as the bitterness evident in these comments indicates, they’ve still got a way to go to convince their ultimate customer: consumers.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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