Ottawa – The panel charged with reviewing the XL Foods Inc. beef recall of last year has released its results.
The federal government appointed an Independent Expert Advisory Panel in February. On June 5, Gerry Ritz, Canada’s Agriculture minister, received the report and tabled it in the House of Commons.
The panel says it met with dozens of stakeholders, including beef producers and processors, health authorities and academics, the retail industry and union representatives for both XL Foods and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
What the panel found was a series of inadequate responses by two key players in the food safety continuum that played the most critical part leading to the September 2012 outbreak at XL Foods: the plant and CFIA staff.
“We found that responsibilities towards food safety programs were not always met – by both plant staff and CFIA officials on site,” say the authors of the report.
The panel also found a relaxed attitude towards applying mandatory procedures, which were clearly outlined in some documents, less so in others.
They also found that XL Foods, one of the country’s largest beef processors, was unprepared to handle what turned out to be the largest beef recall in Canadian history.
As the company had never conducted any mock recalls on a scale that remotely mimicked a real event, “XL Foods found itself overwhelmed with the recall that occurred.”
“In short,” the panel writes, “we found a weak food safety culture at the Brooks plant, shared by both plant management and CFIA staff.”
The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) welcomed the news of the report, saying cattle producers “strongly support the ultimate objective of reducing, and if possible, eliminating, E. coli illness associated with beef.”
The CCA says after the XL Foods recall, it developed an E. coli O157 Research and Education Strategy, which it says includes research supporting many of the recommendations contained in the review regarding E. coli interventions.
The CCA adds that it has submitted the required documentation to renew its 1998 petition to allow for the irradiation of beef in Canada. The CCA says, “We are extremely pleased to see that the report recommends that industry make such an application and that Health Canada give it prompt attention.”
Canada Beef also says it supports the report, saying it “aligns with the Canadian beef industry’s desire to provide beef products of the highest quality and safety possible.”
The report identified several recommendations that it believes will further strengthen the food safety system in Canada and catalogued them by theme.
Here are just a few. For the report and full list of recommendations, click here.
To strengthen prevention strategies and regulatory oversight:
• A strong food safety culture must be developed within the processing plant, and adopted by both plant and CFIA staff – at all levels.
• Inspectors should devote proportionately less time to evaluating specimens for pathology and more time training on protocols that have maximum impact on food safety.
• CFIA and Health Canada (HC) should continue to expedite the approval of interventions – especially those approved and commonly practised by our food trading partners.
• HC must complete its risk assessment of mechanically tenderized beef (MTB) as quickly as possible, and make known its recommendations concerning the handling of the product.
• CFIA should adopt an initial benchmark of 5% for E. coli O157:H7 in beef trim, at which point inspectors would intensify their inspection activities and evaluate the matter more closely.
• The beef industry should submit a proposal to HC to approve irradiation as an effective food safety intervention. HC should give the application prompt consideration.
• CFIA should expand the scope of contaminant testing to include E. coli non-O157:H7 STECs to establish a baseline for its prevalence in beef.
To strengthen surveillance and trend analysis:
• CFIA should require that data analysis (e.g., trend analysis, process control) be done at a frequency consistent with plant protocols and that, in the event of a HEP, the CFIA be notified immediately.
• CFIA should require that inspectors adjust the frequency and thoroughness of plant sanitation inspections based on their ongoing findings. These evaluations should occur especially before start-up, to ensure that cleaning protocols are adequate.
To strengthen incident management and recall response:
• CFIA must require that the processor have meat labelling and distribution information at the plant and in an accessible format.
• CFIA should improve the readability of Health Hazard Alerts (HHAs).
• Federal, provincial and territorial health authorities must collaborate on a priority basis to develop mutually acceptable definitions, along with messaging to explain them.
To strengthen communication with the public and stakeholders about providing food safety messages:
• Government food safety partners must reach agreement about what they communicate, and who communicates it.
• Federal food safety partners (CFIA, HC, and Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC)) must establish an expedited approval process to address the need for rapid communications during a national foodborne illness outbreak.
• PHAC must clearly be seen as the lead in communications with the public during a national foodborne emergency.