In early October, Food Safety News reported that “the largest beef recall in Canadian history grew even larger . . .with the government’s announcement that more products are being taken off the market for potential E. coli contamination.”
XL Foods had just announced a recall of 260 more varieties of beef, according to a Canadian Food Inspection Agency health alert. The newly recalled products were added to hundreds of others. A chastened CFIA expanded the recall 13 times, U.S. retailers pulled beef products from stores in at least 41 states and more than 1,100 beef products were destroyed.
The problem was even more embarrassing to CFIA because it was discovered by U.S. inspectors who found E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef samples taken at the Canadian border. CFIA conducted its own testing the next day, but the first recall was not initiated for several weeks.
What followed was a lot of finger pointing, government inquiries and the owners of the XL plant handing over the day-to-day management and possibly the ownership to JBS America, the giant Brazilian-based meat business. The political fallout in Alberta and Ottawa will go on for a long time. The smoke from this conflagration has started to clear away, though, and some saner heads have started to talk about what caused it and what should be done to prevent a reoccurrence.
I called on Dr. Keith Warriner for some answers. He is an Associate Professor with the Department of Food Science at University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. During the last 15 years he has published more than 100 papers, book chapters, patents, and conference abstracts. He has been called one of Canada’s foremost food scientists. With his educational background and his vantage point sitting at a major university slightly north of the border, he is in a unique position to look at production problems and suggest some realistic solutions to an issue that’s plagued beef plants all across North America. One of his major concerns? The problem with third party audits; something that’s haunted food plants on both sides of the border.
Q. Keith, let’s talk about that big beef recall. First, what were the contributing factors?
A. There was likely a combination of factors that contributed to the incident. First, it was likely that there was a spike in the carriage of E coli O157 on cattle in the early fall which is not uncommon. In the plant itself, the line was working at full capacity (4000+ head) a day and hence one can predict there was a heavy loading of E coli O157 on the line.
Standard practices were in-place to perform trim sampling for E coli O157 and it is apparent that positives were being found. However, there was a failure to completely act on the positives in terms of initiating High Event Day measures. In High Event Days the testing is increased and all meat produced on these days goes for cooked products (lethal treatment).
This did not occur according to the CFIA report and hence product was released to market despite the risk. The contribution of the CFIA cannot go unnoticed. The inspectors should have been aware of the test results and acted to implement corrective actions. The long list of Corrective Action Requests following the recall illustrate that the CFIA did not closely monitor the line prior to the incident. The fact that the US FSIS discovered the contaminated trim first also underlines that the CFIA were not testing effectively or were not acting on the results.
Q. Were they using the appropriate preventative steps?
A. XL Foods operated multiple intervention steps to decontaminate carcasses that included steam pasteurization, sanitizer wash, steam vacuuming, peroxyacetic acid wash and a lactic acid wash. There was an issue with one of the wash units although there was redundancy in the system that should have compensated if one of the interventions failed. Yet we don’t know if the decontamination treatments were being operated correctly as there is evidence that what was written in the HACCP plan were not being followed on the line.
Q. Those shortcomings didn’t happen overnight. Why weren’t they identified earlier?
A. One could speculate about a culture towards food safety where production efficiency was king and safety a secondary issue. Yet, the purpose of the CFIA was to ensure the regulations were followed and hence should shoulder some of the responsibility.
One can only speculate why the CFIA did not act on the obvious infractions that occurred in the plant on a daily basis. This could be due to the culture of the plant influencing the inspectors. It could also be that the CFIA inspectors lacked experience.
Q. Responding to the recall, the Conference Board of Canada has just called for improving the traceability system, finding it as ‘plagued by inconsistent, incompatible reporting within the food supply chain.’ Is that an accurate overview? Can the various government agencies and private resources develop a reasonably priced system to identify the source of contaminated products?
A. Traceability has been a hot topic in the food industry for more than a decade. There are effective methods to trace the meat up to the point of distribution to central warehouses but then things get complicated. For the major retailers, the meat is sourced from multiple sources and when producing steaks, for example, they could be cutting products from Plant A and then Plant B, Plant C etc. The same can occur with ground beef were the Combos could be sourced from different plant, even countries.
Attempting to trace product from this point is highly problematic and was the reason for the widespread, seemingly endless recalls. It gets even more complicated when prepared meat products are included. Consequently, a complete traceability system would mean a significant change in how the industry works and I can’t see this happening overnight. Traceability is not only an issue for the meat industry but the food sector in general. We only have to think back to the Peanut Corp recall in the US where thousands of products were recalled over an extended time period due to difficulty in identifying where ingredients from the plant had ended up.
Q, JBS USA is now managing the XL plant with a six month option to buy it. The reported purchase price is about a third of the plant’s value just before the recall so it’s difficult to imagine JBS not exercising that option. There have been concerns expressed about the purchase by both the U.S. and Canadian governments. What would be the effect on the North American beef industry?
A. The takeover by JBS should be seen as positive. Although the company does have a fair number of skeletons-in-the-cupboard, there is no doubting their global presence. Consequently, the markets for Canadian beef will be increased. There is concern about placing price pressure on producers although this has not been observed in the other locations where the company operates.
Although it is a shame to see another Canadian company to be lost, the reality is that Canada encourages investments from abroad to sustain industry. In this respect, the objections from the Canadian Government may be a case saying the right thing. Although JBS is likely taking advantage of the situation, it should be noted that XL Foods did the same thing when they took over Tyson in 2009. Time will tell if JBS is the white knight but it can be envisaged that the plant will be run better than the previous management.
Q. Talk to me about the beef industry’s use of intervention steps to help prevent incidences of E. coli contamination as well as illnesses caused by other pathogens. Looking at recalls during the last decade, the trend has been decidedly downward but do we have access to enough resources? Are we using them to their fullest advantage?
A. The problem we face is that while detection technologies have advanced our ability to control pathogens remains a challenge. We know that if we can control pathogens in production this will lessen on intervention steps. Yet, there is little done at the production level to tackle the E. coli O157 problem.
Vaccines have shown promise but are no silver bullet by any means. There is debate about grass vs. grain fed cattle although evidence is inconclusive. The big question when events like XL foods happen is why not irradiate meat? Irradiation using X-rays has been used although it has issues relating to discoloration and obviously the lack of consumer acceptance.
The use of low energy beams (e-beams) has been shown to be effective without causing discoloration. Consumer willingness to accept the technology is open to question but I would imagine that the XL Foods incident could change attitudes.
Q. The Canadian beef market will need some time to recover. What needs to be done to regain buyer confidence, especially in world markets?
A. Consumer confidence is actually high within Canada which I assume is due to customer-friendly pricing. The world market is a different matter as it is not consumers who have to be convinced but regulators. There is a fair amount of tit-for-tat when it comes to interaction between government regulators in different countries. Japan has opened its market to beef from XL Foods and one would assume the US will follow given their recent inspection of the plant. With the US market open, it can be predicted that others will follow with some being slower than others. Therefore, one can see that the markets will return to normal within a relatively short time.
Q. Finally, would you define the problem?
A. When we speak of XL Foods we refer to an incident rather than a foodborne illness outbreak. The main focus has been how plants operate and how they are inspected by the CFIA. A new act is going through parliament that will modernize the CFIA and will effectively take inspectors away from the front line and act more as document reviewers.
The role of inspection will be handed to 3rd party auditors who essentially are paid to inspect the facility to ensure compliance. It was noted XL Foods had a glowing audit report in May 2012 despite obvious deficiencies in the plant. There have been several issues in the US related to 3rd party auditors and one can envisage this has to be considered as we switch to the new Act.