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Canadian Health Authorities Defend Response to E. coli Outbreak and Recall

Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, along with Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) President George Da Pont, went personally to the closed and suspended XL Foods Inc. beef processing plant in Brooks, Alberta yesterday.

Before it was over, Ritz had pulled the rug out from under opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) and Da Pont, who recently moved over to the CFIA from the Coast Guard, managed to rewrite the timeline for what is suppose to be the largest beef recall in Canadian history.

While all that was going on, sources south of the border said it was likely the recalled Canadian beef laced with E. coli O157:H7 was distributed in a large enough amount in the U.S. than one or more states will likely soon join Canada by reporting on individuals in the U.S. who are infected with the pathogen.

But that has not happened yet.  In Canada, at least five people, including three from the same family, are suffering from E. coli infections from eating Kirkland brand strip steaks that originated at XL and were purchased at Costco.

Another five cases cases in Alberta are under investigation along with up to 13 in Saskatchewan.

Ritz and Da Pont traveled from Ottawa to southern Alberta to visit the 40 CFIA inspectors and six veterinarians who are responsible for food safety at the big XL beef plant. Then they meet with reporters.

“While we understand that ranchers, farmers and industry need a strong processing sector, we all agree that the success of the industry must be founded on food safety, ” Ritz told the media.

“That is why the XL Foods plant will only resume operation when the President of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has confirmed in writing to me that the health of Canadians is not at risk.”

That means Da Pont will decided when XL can produce safe beef and send its 2,000 employees back to work.

Da Pont also used the Ritz tour to reshape a bit of the history of the XL recall. He said CFIA came up with a positive E. coli test on XL beef within hours after a random U.S. border check did so on Sept. 3.

It took ten more days for CFIA to officially begin its investigation of XL.

The CFIA President then said there was a delay in getting some initial information on how widespread the problem might be from XL. Da Pont seemed to be saying that if the government’s stalled Safe Food for Canadians Act was law, XL would have been compelled to provide the information without delay.

Ritz staff cut Da Pont off from further explaining this statement, saying he’d be available for one-on-one interviews.

The XL recall is the biggest food safety event to hit Canada since the 2008 Listeria outbreak, which killed 23 mostly elderly Canadians who ate contaminated ready-to-eat meats made by Maple Leaf Foods in Toronto.

As in 2008, opposition MP’s are taking shots at Ritz, saying the minister is putting Canadian food safety at risk. Ritz and Prime Minister Harper defended the actions of their government, saying they’ve hired more than 700 new food safety inspectors, including 170 more meat inspectors.

“This Government immediately accepted all fifty seven recommendations of the Weatherill Report and it’s why we have acted on all of them,” Ritz said, referring to the independent recommendations that were made to the government after the deadly Listeria outbreak.

The XL recall is being called the largest in Canadian history, not on the volume or weight involved, but by the number of products.  Asked about that, CFIA provided Food Safety News with this statement:

“Unfortunately, volume of product by weight is not a figure that we track, as it is not of use when determining what product needs to be recalled, nor is it a useful statistic for informing consumers of what products have been recalled.

“Rather, our focus is on distribution of product, retail stores where it has been put on shelves, product names, UPC codes etc., which assist distributors, retailers and consumers in identifying if they have product which has been recalled.”

Since Sept. 16, XL Foods has recalled more than 1,500 beef products. Food Safety News learned from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that at least 890,000 pounds of recalled XL beef went to at least 40 states in the U.S.

© Food Safety News