Keith Warriner 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.