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Weak Food Safety Culture Led to XL Foods Recall, Review Finds

Company and Canadian Food Inspection Authority (CFIA) staff at XL Foods had a lax approach to food safety leading up to the massive beef recall last fall, according to an independent review released by the Canadian government.

The report also found that XL Foods was not prepared to execute the recall – which was the largest in Canadian history and extended into the United States – because the company had never conducted any mock recalls “on a scale that remotely mimicked a real event.”

The recall for E. coli O157:H7 contamination, which was ultimately linked to 18 illness in Canada, was reviewed by a panel of three people appointed by the Governor in Council. The panel spent several weeks interviewing inspectors, plant workers, and others to determine what exactly happened before, during, and after the recall and was asked to make recommendations.

“We found that responsibilities towards food safety programs were not always met – by both plant staff and CFIA officials on site,” according to the report. “We found a relaxed attitude towards applying mandatory procedures – clearly outlined in some documents, less so in others. Again, a shortcoming shared by both plant and CFIA staff.”

The panel said the Brooks, Alberta plant had a “weak” food safety culture that was shared by both plant management and CFIA staff, but overall the panel believes the Canadian meat inspection system can work if “players across both the food safety and supply spectrum” work together as partners.

One of the many issues flagged in the report was that XL Foods and CFIA officials in the plant were not analyzing testing results to identify high event periods (HEPs), or periods where pathogen tests are exceeding a set certain threshold.

“It is the Panel’s view that, had XL Foods Inc. analyzed its E. coli O157:H7 sampling data and responded appropriately to HEPs in late August, the contaminated shipments would likely have been contained and not left the plant,” reads the report.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is credited with helping to flag the contamination in the report. In early September, CFIA had found E. coli O157:H7 in raw beef trimmings in a processing plant in Calgary – the beef was from XL Foods. On the same day, FSIS notified CFIA saying they had a positive test result from XL Foods trimmings exported to the United States.

Because CFIA initially determined the contaminated product was not in the marketplace, it took several days for the recall to take shape after multiple expansions. Eventually about 8 million pounds of beef was recalled, according to the report. This represents “at minimum” 12,000 head of cattle.

The report noted that the system likely did prevent many illnesses because the recall was sparked by testing and not in response to an outbreak.

“It must be said that, while this E. coli O157:H7 contamination of beef products from the Brooks plant resulted in 18 people becoming sick, the beef recall was triggered well before any cases of human illness had been reported. This is important because, had it been launched only after illnesses were reported and contaminated products still in retail distribution, it is very likely that more consumers would have purchased and consumed product, resulting in even more illnesses.”

The lengthy report, which includes a wide variety of policy recommendations, can be found here.

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