Veteran cattleman George Graham has a common-sense solution for how to prevent a repeat of an E. coli outbreak and extensive product recall in the fall that made 18 people sick, threw thousands out of work and smeared the Canadian beef brand.
Officials who regulate and work in the industry must simply do their jobs properly.
“We have an extremely good product and we have a very good food-safety program compared to other places around the world,” Graham said from his feedlot in southern Alberta where his family has raised cattle since 1918.
“We just need to be more vigilant that the job is getting done.”
The manure hit the fan in early September when U.S. food inspectors found E. coli bacteria in a shipment of beef from the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta.
The U.S. quickly closed its border to beef from the plant, which slaughters up to 40 per cent of Canada’s cattle. Canadian officials then shut the plant down and sent 2,200 workers home.
In the weeks that followed, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency pulled back more than 2,000 products across the country involving millions of kilograms of beef — the largest meat recall in Canada’s history.
American food safety regulators announced a similar recall by XL Foods of its products in more than 30 states.
In the end, there were 18 confirmed cases of people getting sick in Canada from a specific and potentially deadly strain of E. coli linked to the XL Foods beef.
Canadian producers lost money as cattle prices fell and ranchers had to pay more to ship their cattle to other plants.
Millions of kilograms of beef from prime Canadian cattle was dumped in landfills or rendered into non-food products.
The company that once boasted of being the largest Canadian-owned beef plant turned over management of the Brooks plant to JBS USA, an affiliate of Brazil-based JBS SA, which has an option to buy the facility and other XL Foods holdings.
Professor Rick Holley, a University of Manitoba food safety expert, said there is no excuse for the sanitation problems that led to the closure of the Brooks plant.
He said Canada is respected around the world for its progressive food safety rules. The problem, he suggested, is that those rules are not as vigorously enforced as they should be.
How could 40 inspectors and six veterinarians at the XL plant somehow miss the problems?
“We see too much pressure being put on inspection staff to complete reports,” said Holley, who added that some inspectors need more training to effectively do their jobs.
“They just have to get better at the proactive end of things, a lot better.”
The responsibility for food safety also rests with company owners. Holley said managers and supervisors must set clear operating standards for hygiene and strictly enforce them.
Part of that responsibility is to ensure that workers, who are often immigrants who speak English as a second language, are fully trained to understand what is expected of them.
Workers must also feel comfortable about being able to speak up if they have concerns.
Holley said food safety in meat plants is everyone’s concern, but ultimately it is the federal food inspection staff that set the tone.
“There is a constant requirement for regulatory oversight, but that regulatory oversight must be viewed by the plant’s managers and staff as competent,” he said.
“When the activity doesn’t appear to be competent, then you end up with people taking shortcuts, and outcomes such as we have seen at XL Foods.”
How much damage did the recall and E. coli outbreak cause Canada’s beef industry, which is centred in Alberta, but includes cattle producers in every province? No one is quite sure.
Most of the beef that Canadians eat — almost 80 per cent — comes from cattle that are Canadian-born, bred and processed. Canada produces twice the amount of beef that it consumes. The rest is exported, mainly to the United States.
The slogan of the industry’s marketing arm, Canada Beef Inc., is “Quality That Inspires Confidence.”
Ron Glaser, a Canada Beef vice-president, said it appears that most consumers haven’t stopped eating beef. But shoppers are asking more questions about the beef they are buying.
“They want to know what plant it is from,” he said from Calgary. “They are going to want to know, basically, is it safe?”
To reassure consumers, the industry is developing an information campaign that it is expected to roll out in the new year, Glaser said.
It is likely to include information on how producers take care in raising cattle and an assurance that Canada has an extremely safe food system.
The XL Foods fiasco will be cast as an exception, not the rule.
“It is unfortunate that there are occasionally problems like this,” Glaser said. “It is unfortunate that this will potentially tarnish a broader industry.”
On Oct. 29, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency cleared the Brooks plant to resume slaughtering cattle and packaging beef. Products have since been allowed to be shipped again to retailers. XL Foods has also been given permission to resume exports to the United States.
Despite a seeming return to normalcy, some ranchers warn it will take time for the industry to recover.
“Are we making ends meet? Just barely, as we are still playing catch-up for the years that we did not get a decent price for our calves during the BSE years and we had to use all our resources to keep ranching,” said Eileen Juhasz, who has 150 head on her ranch south of Lethbridge.
The CFIA has said there was no single factor that caused the E. coli outbreak in Brooks. Problems included deficiencies in bacteria control, sanitation and record-keeping.
The federal government has promised a complete review of what happened and to make its final report public, including possible recommendations to improve food safety.
“Certainly we take this to heart and don’t want to see these kind of issues happen, but we’ll never apologize for the size and the scope of the recall. If that’s what’s required, that’s what we’ll do,” Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz told The Canadian Press.
The federal government is also putting its faith in JBS USA, the company that’s now managing the Brooks plant.
“JBS is a tremendous corporate partner,” Ritz said. “They brought an era of food culture to that plant that we haven’t seen for quite some time so we look forward to them and moving on to the future.”
Cattleman George Graham is also bullish on JBS and hopes the international food giant will buy the XL Foods plant.
He said business at his South Slope Feeders feedlot outside of Brooks is picking up. He recalled how the industry bounced back from the financial upheaval caused by the mad cow disease scare a decade ago.
“We have seen a lot of hurdles thrown at us the last 10 years and we’ve managed to survive some pretty big ones,” he said. “I don’t think this is going to be any different.”
— With files from Bill Graveland in Calgary