XL review needs to explain the why, when and who

Sunshine is a good disinfectant. It wouldn’t have been enough to stop E. coli contamination at the XL Foods meat plant last fall, but it might be enough to reveal how and why it happened.

The federal government last week announced an independent review of circumstances surrounding the largest beef recall in Canadian history.

In September and October 2012, E. coli in some products from one of Western Canada’s largest packing plants sickened 18 people and severely damaged consumer confidence in food safety.

Consumers and beef industry organizations demanded to know how the contamination occurred, why so much suspect beef was distributed, why communication was so abysmal and what role the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and plant personnel played in the matter.

The government appears to have heard those demands and has offered the further promise that results from the investigation will be made public.

We must hold the government to that promise.

A veterinarian, a medical doctor and a food industry expert have been tasked with the review. The first of three goals itemized on the panel’s government-issued list is to examine all factors contributing to the E. coli outbreak at the XL plant in Brooks, Alta., including inspection policies, protocols and information exchange.

That’s the crux of the matter.

The other two goals are designed to examine the CFIA’s ability to detect E. coli contamination and mount an effective response.

The panel should consider all of this “in conjunction with the response of its food safety system partners, including XL Foods Inc. and foreign regulators, to the E. coli outbreak, including but not limited to the effectiveness of their prevention, detection, recall response, incident management and investigative activities, as well as their collaboration and communication with one another, the public and stakeholders for the purpose of ensuring consumer safety.”

Whew.

If successful in its quest for this information, the panel may be able to answer most of the questions surrounding the recall.

There is a tendency in today’s world to affix blame when things go wrong, as they did indeed at XL Foods.

Many in the cattle and beef industry, who still feel the effects from the BSE crisis as they watch domestic beef consumption decline, feel that desire most acutely.

“It is curious how E. coli in lettuce is barely a blip on the radar and nearly all of the other E. coli disasters never required the industry involved to be run over by a bus,” says the Western Stock Growers Association.

“This leads (us) to wonder who bears responsibility and who should be held accountable. Whether it is called an inquiry or investigation or something else, we need to arrive at the truth.”

Once arrived, that truth must be used to ensure food safety protocols are as strong as we can make them.

However, it’s also important for all of us to realize that complete food safety isn’t achievable given the adaptability of bacteria and the numerous points in the food chain when safety can be compromised.

Federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz has asked the panel to make recommendations for improvement, “within the existing resources of the CFIA.”

Let us hope those existing resources have enough depth to address the problems surrounding the beef recall, and also that the sun shines on all players in the scenario whose actions contributed to the problem.

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