Memo raises inspection questions


Beef line at XL Foods | Government says opposition is misinterpreting the memo’s meaning

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is under fire over another incident at the XL Foods plant near Brooks, Alta.

The incident involves a memo that appeared to order carcass contamination be ignored at one inspection point.

This autumn, E. coli-contaminated meat sent out of the plant resulted in the largest meat recall in Canadian history and inspectors faced some of the blame.

Last week, senior CFIA officials and agriculture minister Gerry Ritz insisted the memo was misinterpreted.

The 2008 memo, reissued several times but since amended, was directed at one inspection position in the XL plant responsible for ensuring that meat destined for the Japanese market was from animals younger than 21 months, they said. It was one of 20 inspection positions in the plant.

“If there is a checklist of 20 items, they’re all done regardless of where the product is going, domestic or outside the country,” Ritz told the agriculture committee Nov. 29.

Opposition critics said the memo shows that exports to Japan receive a higher level of inspection than meat destined for Canadian consumers.

The memo directed to the inspection station for product destined for Japan said: “Our number one priority is to ensure this standard is met with Japan-eligible carcasses. When stationed at this position, ensure that non-Japan eligible carcasses are not inspected for spinal cord/dura-mater and OCD defects.”

It said other inspectors would catch the problem and to deal with contamination in all carcasses at the Japan-dedicated station could lead to unnecessary shutdowns in the meat line for Japan.

NDP agriculture critic Malcolm Allen said the memo indicates inspectors were ordered to ignore carcasses with visible feces or ingesta (intestinal material) on them.

Senior CFIA official Paul Mayers said the contamination was not being ignored. This was a memo about how to deal with products to Japan.

“Fecal matter and ingesta on a carcass at the final stage renders that carcass adulterated with absolute zero tolerance,” he said. “That means that product would not be considered edible, it would not be permitted into the food supply.”

Critics remained skeptical and saw it as a breakdown in the food inspection system.

Liberal Frank Valeriote called it “willful blindness” and another reason to have a third-party audit of CFIA.

“Can you tell me why this willful blindness does not amount to criminal negligence when CFIA has placed the health and safety of the lives of Canadians at risk?” he asked agency president George Da Pont.

“I just simply have to disagree with your analysis,” replied Da Pont at committee. It was a memo to one inspector station that was not involved in food safety assessment.

Inspector union president Bob Kingston of the Public Service Alliance of Canada agriculture union met with Da Pont and Ritz in early November to argue that the wording of the memo was a potential problem. The wording was revised. If contamination is spotted, others must be notified and the line stopped as necessary until the problem has been addressed.

In a Nov. 30 interview, Kingston said the government cannot downplay the error of sending the memo to inspectors.

“I think there was a misunderstanding by the supervisor who wrote that memo about the difference between a regulatory audit and an accreditation audit,” he said. “In a regulatory system, no inspector should ever be told to ignore contamination that they see.”

Although CFIA officials insisted there were other inspection sites later in the line that would have caught carcass contamination, Kingston said the next stage was a wash station to remove microscopic bacterial contamination but not visible fecal or ingesta contamination.

“At that point, it has already been through the process and the only contamination that should still be on the carcass should be microscopic,” he said. “In that state, the next wash station should work. If there is visual contamination, all the wash will do is spread the bacteria around the carcass.”

He said a “bad culture” existed around food inspection at the XL Foods plant. The leaked memo reflects the malaise and not just at the XL plant, he added.

“In southern Alberta, our people often were told to back off,” he said.

“They were told by supervisors, managers to give it a break. As we know now, we’re not doing them any favours by giving them a break.”

Kingston said the XL plant was one of the sites where CFIA inspectors have been told to stand aside.

“At Brooks, we were told to back off from time to time, to give them a break, yeah,” he said.

“There was a bad culture there. And a memo like this almost gives license to plant employees to tell CFIA to butt out.”

However, he said it is not unique to the Brooks plant.

“I can tell you that I could probably produce a half dozen other documents like that (from packing plants) across the country.”