The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is taking heat for what some are calling a too slow response to a massive Canadian beef recall for E. coli O157:H7.

Washington, DC-based advocacy group Food & Water Watch sharply criticized FSIS Friday, saying it was “stunning” that the agency still hasn’t issued a formal recall several days after the Canadian Food Inspection Agency recalled hundreds of beef products for E. coli O157:H7, including dozens of products that were shipped to processors in several U.S. states.

On Sept. 3, FSIS confirmed a positive test for E. coli O157:H7 from Canadian company XL Foods, Inc. After follow-up testing by federal food safety officials in both countries, CFIA announced a recall on Sept. 16. The recall has been expanded half a dozen times and now includes hundreds of products.

“After knowing for 17 days that they had a potential public health crisis on their hands, the management of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) finally issued a ‘Public Health Alert’ at 9:00 p.m. on September 20, 2012 regarding tainted beef that had crossed the border from Canada,” explained Wenonah Hauter, executive director of FWW, in a release titled: “Where’s the Recall?”

Meanwhile, on Sept 17, 16, 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22 CFIA expanded their recall to include more products, including American brands like Kirkland Signature (Costco) and Safeway.

For their part, FSIS says that since the Canadian firm has already initiated a recall, the U.S. meat safety agency’s role is limited to conducting effectiveness checks of the recall. Downstream customers in the U.S. have been notified about the potentially contaminated products, according to the agency, so federal health officials are following up to make sure the product has been removed from commerce.

When FSIS finds out which retail locations may have sold meat from this recall, the agency said it updates its public retail list.

Phyllis Entis, a microbiologist and food safety expert who maintains eFoodAlert, a clearinghouse for up-to-date food recall information, told Food Safety News she strongly disagreed with the agency’s rationale for not issuing a recall.

“That’s the most arrant bit of nonsense I’ve heard in a long time! And I’ve heard a lot of nonsense,” said Entis, adding that it is actually normal for U.S.-based meat packers to issue recalls for ground beef products that contain recalled trimmings. “I always thought that the role of FSIS was to protect public health.”

Advocates have been scratching their heads at the slow-moving recall and public health alert, especially since it was a microbiological test by FSIS, from the inspection station in Sweetgrass, Montana, that originally found the contamination.

“In its Alert the FSIS also revealed that meat from the XL plant had been exported to U.S. meat processors located in California, Michigan, Nebraska Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin, where it remains on store shelves today,” said Hauter. “Meanwhile, the Obama Administration and the Harper Government in Canada have been plotting to eliminate the very border inspection program that tipped off authorities that there was a major problem brewing with the products originating from the XL plant. The ‘Beyond the Border’ initiative would deregulate certain requirements so that trade could be facilitated between the two countries.”

Last week, FWW and two other consumer groups wrote to USDA urging the department to halt a Beyond the Border pilot program that would allow certain Canadian meat processors to expedite export to the U.S., leapfrogging traditional border inspection.

“After this fiasco, if ‘Beyond the Border’ is allowed to proceed, it would simply be beyond credulity,” said Hauter.

  • What goes around, comes around. Perhaps 20 years ago, a FSIS inspector named Bill Lehman sp? who was assigned to the same Sweetgrass MT import inspection station documented eggregious examples of contaminated meat being shipped from Canada into the US. His superiors reprimanded him, yet he spoke out nevertheless. The agency then discredited him, a story in itself. He died shortly thereafter, and the agency did not mourn.
    Why are we not learning, and why are we attempting to diminish border inspection, in spite of USDA’s alleged committment to “Safe Food”?
    Answer: America’s (1) government and (2) largest food companies are totally sold out to seamless, unfettered international trade with virtually no restrictions. These two entities have willingly, yet slyly, acquiesced America’s autonomy to the World Trade Organization, which now unilaterally decides if our domestic policies and laws are “Internationally Legal”. A good example is Country of Origin Labeling, which was passed into law here in the US, but dependent on WTO’s blessing.
    Global food companies’ financial largesse controls our government, not only the Oval Office, but also our House and Senate, and our regulatory agencies. Therefore, we will observe a systematic dismantling of domestic control/surveillance measures which would promote the goal of Safe Food.
    Get used to it.
    And by the way, neither Obama nor Romney will return sanity to this debacle. Both candidates depend on corporate campaign contributions. Public Health and Food Safety no longer hold the sway they used to, as we have become global citizens, no longer sovereign Americans.
    Get used to it.
    John Munsell