The massive Canadian XL Foods E. coli recall — which has now been expanded seven times — includes some 890,000 pounds of beef manufacturing trim and an unknown amount of boxed beef that was sent to 12 U.S. processors, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
The agency said Wednesday that officials have not yet determined, in total, how much potentially contaminated beef was imported into the U.S. from XL Foods before FSIS started halting product at the border after finding E. coli O157:H7 in a routine microbiological sample pulled on Aug. 30. The timeline of the large recall, which has unfolded haphazardly over several days, has consumer advocates and media questioning whether regulators moved expeditiously to protect public health.
According to FSIS, U.S. officials confirmed the positive E. coli O157:H7 test late Sept. 3 and notified the Canadian Food Inspection Agency of the issue Sept. 4. The positive test sparked intensive follow up testing by FSIS officials. Three more E. coli O157:H7 positives were reported back to CFIA between Sept. 4 and Sept. 12., which indicates the slaughter plant likely lost control of its process to prevent contamination for some time, known in the industry as a “high event period.”
CBC News reported Wednesday that CFIA did not begin their in-plant investigation of XL Foods, which is one of the largest processors in Canada, until Sept. 13, nearly 10 days after the contamination was first reported. The same day, the plant was de-listed, or temporarily barred from exporting product to the United States.
CFIA first issued a recall Sept. 16, but as the investigation has continued, the agency has continued to expand the scope of the recall, posting expansions Sept 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, and 25.
A CFIA spokesman did not get back to Food Safety News regarding questions about the agency’s timeline.
In the U.S., FSIS issued a public health alert on Sept. 20, but the agency is not issuing a recall “because the goal of such an action is to have the establishment most directly associated with producing adulterated product remove the product from commerce.” In this case, that establishment is XL Foods in Canada so, FSIS says, it’s CFIA”s responsibility to oversee the effectiveness of the recall in Canada, while FSIS monitors the recall stateside.
Recall guru Phyllis Entis has been very critical of the agency’s decision to not formally announce a recall, which she believes garners more attention than a public health alert. Entis, who runs eFoodAlert, a website that posts comprehensive food recall information daily, said Wednesday that she disagrees with the decision to not post a U.S.-based recall since multiple U.S. companies received the recalled product.
FSIS is posting the names of retail locations that sold the recalled beef products, but Entis says the agency is missing several retail chains who have recalled XL Foods product. So far, FSIS lists Albertsons (all locations in Oregon and Washington state, as well as three locations in Idaho), and Food4Less, Jay C, Kroger, and Safeway (for each chain, locations in the greater Cincinnati Area, Northern Kentucky, Dayton Ohio, Southeastern Indiana, Indiana (except Evansville), Illinois and Eastern Missouri).
According to eFoodAlert, which rapidly gleans recall information directly from retailers across the U.S. and Canada, FoodsCo (California locations), Haggen Northwest Fresh (Washington and Oregon), and Safeway (Washington and Oregon) and TOP Food & Drug (Washington and Oregon) should all be on FSIS’ retail distribution list as well. For a full list of recalled beef products, including all of the information for Canada, see eFoodAlert.
Washington, DC-based advocacy group Food & Water Watch has also criticized FSIS for they say was a too slow response to the problem in Canada.
“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 sent out Friday titled: “Where’s the Recall?”
FSIS maintains that it took swift action in response to finding E. coil O157:H7 at the border. The agency has worked with all 12 plants that received the potentially contaminated beef to help track down and remove it from commerce.
There are no known U.S. illnesses connected to the recall, but Canadian officials are investigating whether four E. coli infections in Alberta might be linked to steaks from XL Foods.
E. coli O157:H7 is a potentially deadly bacterium that can cause bloody diarrhea, dehydration, and in the most severe cases, kidney failure and death. The very young, the elderly and individuals with weak immune systems are the most susceptible.
Recalled products should be discarded. In general, ground beef products should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees to kill bacteria. Anyone concerned about a serious foodborne illness should contact their health care provider.