Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Canada's food safety regime failed us

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Across the land Canadians are scrambling to empty store shelves and fridges of beef products in one of the biggest E. coli recall scares ever. Not just ground beef, but steaks, roasts, ribs, stewing beef, sausage -- the list seems endless. More than 1.5 million pounds of the stuff have been recalled.

Given the scope of the scare, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz's claim that Canada's food inspection system has done a "tremendous job" grows hollower by the day. The recall list has now swelled to include 1,100 products, and the number of cases of suspected food poisoning, while fortunately small, has also been growing. This is the minister who at one point thought no potentially tainted beef had made it to store shelves. It did, all across North America, and now there's worry in every province and territory and many states.

Canadians are owed answers from Ottawa. And Americans will be demanding them.

As the opposition in Parliament has pointed out, Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors failed to detect tainted meat before it left XL Foods' vast Lakeside Packers plant at Brooks, Alta. American inspectors first spotted an E. coli problem at the border on Sept. 3. The CFIA then noted a problem the following day. But the company issued a voluntary recall only on Sept. 16. And the CFIA finally shut down the plant only on Sept. 27, citing problems with the company's control measures and sampling and testing procedures, and the plant's failure to implement agreed-on corrective measures.

All this despite the presence of 40 inspectors and six veterinarians at the plant.

"How did our food safety system fail so dramatically in this case?" Liberal agri-food critic MP Frank Valeriote wanted to know. "Why did it take so long for Ritz to warn Canadians and issue a recall? How have recent cuts to food inspectors affected Canada's ability to avert such a crisis? How will we prevent cases like this from occurring in the future?" These are nothing more than the questions many are asking as they discard their beef supplies.

Parliament needs to get to the bottom of this.

Catching potentially tainted meat at a slaughterhouse that can process 4,000 cattle a day is a highly technical, multi-layered business. The CFIA's director of meat inspection says plants need to conduct more rigorous data analysis of E. coli tests to help inspectors "connect the dots" and spot dangerous trends. That appears to be the take-away from this fiasco.

But other concerns have been raised, including the suggestion by Bob Kingston, president of the food inspectors' Agriculture Union, that Ottawa has put too much faith in private companies to do their own testing. There's also the issue of CFIA's budget. While more than $700 million, it is down slightly from last year.

Maybe a little more skepticism is in order, and more money for stepped-up inspection.


-- The Canadian Press


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 4, 2012 A8

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