The XL plant in Brooks, Alberta, at the center of the huge beef recall in Canada, was not following some safety procedures properly according to the head of the Canadian Food Inspection agency. Some beef at the plant was contaminated with E. coli.
George Da Pont, head of the CFIA, claimed that the XL plant did not always follow the "bracketing" procedure that is called for when traces of contaminants are found. The agriculture minister Gerry Ritz described the process as follows:"When we find a shipment that has a contaminant like E. coli, such as we've found, we do what's called bracketing. And we take out the shipment ahead of it and the shipment behind it and search those out, and everything is brought back. That's the safety valve."
According to Da Pont the XL plant at Brooks Alberta did not always follow the bracketing procedure.:"What we found is that the plant was not doing appropriate trend analysis when they had spikes [in E. coli] the previous week.We found that there were, when we did the further investigations, a few instances where the bracketing process that the minister described was not properly followed... Specifically, it seems that there were a few instances that we could document where they did not divert either the [carcass] before or after."
Da Pont also complained that the CFIA did not have the power to compel the company to quickly hand over records. The agency wanted test results and distribution information for products that were made on the same day as the E. coli tainted meat. The agency asked for the information on September 6 but did not receive it until four days later. U.S. officials also found samples of beef at the border contained E. coli and had alerted the CFIA.
The CFIA banned XL Foods from shipping any meat to the U.S. on Sept. 13 but did not inform the Canadian public until September 16. Agriculture minister Ritz defended his inspectors at the plant saying that they had done a terrific job up to now.
The inspection agency has 40 inspectors and 6 veterinarians at the plant but it is a huge operation. The recall has already involved 1,500 products in every province and territory of Canada and 41 U.S. states. The plant involved apparently failed to follow at least five other protocols beyond the "bracketing" process. The other protocols involved sanitation and maintenance issues.
A spokesperson for the union in the plant, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, said that workers had been processing too many carcasses, too quickly. Tom Hesse said: “You can’t do that much work in that short a period of time without worker and public safety being compromised."
A spokesperson for the government meat inspector's union, PSAC, said that the government's $56 million in cuts to the CFIA in the present budget will result in the loss of 100 meat inspection jobs across Canada. The spokesperson said:“There has been a systemic change in the way inspections are done in these large facilities. Most of the inspection sampling, the day-to-day work that was done in the past by CFIA inspectors, is now done by plant personnel.”
The first inspection seems to be left to workers employed by the plant rather than independent government inspectors. The results of this loosening of regulations and lax enforcement of protocols will result in a costly loss of reputation for Canadian beef. Perhaps it is time as well to move away from huge facilities such as that in Brooks employing more than 2,200 people and processing huge amounts of beef. Size may be good for profits but bad for safety. If there is a problem, the amount of product involved can be huge.