CFIA ponders new procedures

Increased surveillance | XL Foods recall has officials rethinking how plants are inspected

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is contemplating changes to the way it inspects beef plants in the wake of Canada’s largest beef recall.

The federal regulator is mulling over a proposal to bolster surveillance of plants during the peak E. coli shedding months of April through October.

It is also contemplating new procedures that would ensure better communication of lab results and trend analysis to inspection staff.

Discussions about the proposed changes are very preliminary, but there is some urgency to hammer out the details.

“We are working towards making sure that before the start of the next season, which is in April, we have some policies in place,” said Harpreet Kochhar, executive director of the CFIA’s western operations.

Dennis Laycraft, executive vice-president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, said producers would also like to see improvements in the CFIA’s ability to trace forward in the event of a recall because there seemed to be a never-ending series of recall notices associated with last year’s E. coli outbreak at XL Foods in Brooks, Alta., which caused illness in at least 18 Canadians.

“As you got into smaller and smaller operations where there was less automation of records, it was taking weeks to sort through the records,” he said.

The CFIA temporarily closed the plant Sept. 27 for failing to adequately follow food safety procedures. The facility reopened under new management and enhanced CFIA oversight Oct. 23.

The enhanced oversight included adding two inspectors and an inspection manager to the six CFIA veterinarians and 40 CFIA inspectors already stationed at the plant and increasing the amount of sampling and testing.

Kochhar said the enhanced oversight ended Jan. 14 because the CFIA is satisfied that correct procedures are now in place at the plant.

“We are confident with their pre-operation sanitizing procedures, their ability to process the product, their ability to make sure they have proper controls in place,” he said.

The building and maintenance is up to snuff and all the proper procedures are in place if there is a positive E. coli sample.

E. coli hasn’t been detected in the more than 6,000 samples analyzed at the XL Foods plant since it reopened in October.

Kochhar said some elements of increased oversight will continue. The inspection manager will continue to monitor activities at XL Foods and other federally inspected plants, and inspectors will have additional resources at their disposal if needed.

“There is a little more oversight than what it was before, but you would say it is a near normal operation as on Jan. 14,” he said.

There is no single “smoking gun” that caused the E. coli outbreak at XL Foods. A combination of deficiencies contributed to the contamination issue.

One of the biggest was a failure to follow the proper bracketing procedure when a combo tested positive for E. coli.

A combo is a bin full of meat parts from different animals. If it tests positive for E. coli, the meat has to be rendered into animal feed or cooked at a high enough temperature to kill the bacteria.

The combo bins immediately in front of and behind the infected bin on the production line also have to be treated in the same manner. That didn’t happen on Aug. 24, 27, 28, 29 and Sept. 5.

The CFIA recalled 1,800 products made from beef processed during those five days.

Kochhar said the XL Foods incident proves Canada’s food safety system is functioning properly.

The recall began Sept. 16, weeks before the Public Health Agency of Canada reported the first four confirmed cases of illness Oct. 1.

“It clearly proves, in our minds, that the system works. We were able to inform the people much in advance that this could be a contaminated product,” said Kochhar.

Laycraft said the plant voluntarily put the recall in place, which kept the vast majority of tainted products off store shelves.

“To some degree, that credit needs to go to the plant, which doesn’t ever seem to come up in this, that they took that proactive step,” he said.

Laycraft said the system worked, but the CFIA certainly didn’t handle the XL Foods crisis perfectly.

“Clearly we would have liked to have seen a lot earlier communication with industry. Not just the individual party but with industry as a whole,” he said.

“When you close down 40 percent of your processing, that impacts every single person who raises cattle in this country.”

Kochhar considers the “measured response” to the incident by international customers of Canadian beef another sign that Canada is doing something right.

The XL Foods plant processes 37 percent of Canada’s federally inspected cattle slaughter and exports 40 to 45 percent of the beef it produces from those animals.

It is one of Canada’s top two beef processing plants, so jurisdictions such as the United States, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan could have easily closed their doors to all shipments of Canadian meat.

“That was not the case because they have a thorough confidence in our system,” said Kochhar.

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