The security of Canada’s food supply chain is in the news again as the massive recall of Alberta beef expands and questions grow over how government officials are handling the situation.
Last Thursday, the Alberta facility at the centre of a significant beef recall after an E. coli outbreak had its operating licence temporarily suspended by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), according to The Winnipeg Free Press. The agency announced late Thursday that XL Foods Inc. in Brooks, Alta., won’t be able to resume operations until it implements corrective actions required by the agency.
Then, as reported by The Globe and Mail last Friday, the XL Foods shutdown led to hundreds of products being recalled from 10 provinces, two territories, 41 states and Puerto Rico. Closing the plant – one of the three largest in Canada – has thrown 2,200 people out of work indefinitely pending a resolution to the issue.
One day later The Edmonton Journal reported that the beef recall grew wider as Metro Foods issued a release saying it was voluntarily pulling all XL Food beef products from its stories in Quebec. The recall has become Canada’s largest-ever recall of beef products.
This morning the story is expanding further still, with reports that the federal government is moving ahead quickly with plans to amend Canada’s food safety legislation. As reported by The Globe and Mail, the amendment is to a government bill introduced in the Senate just before Parliament’s summer recess that has so far received little public attention. Bill S-11, the “Safe Food for Canadians Act,” amounts to a major overhaul of the laws governing the safety of Canada’s food system.
Food safety expert Paul Valder says that disruption to the safety of food supply chains is the most pressing concern facing those in the food industry.
“Incidents have shown that food safety is the most critical part of any food company’s operations. Its importance to public health, coupled with potentially devastating consequences of a breakdown somewhere in the food safety system, now necessitates that a company plans, designs and builds a food production system that ensures complete food safety coverage from initial concept and start-up to far beyond.”
In the Alberta situation, CFIA officials began their in-depth review of the XL plant on Sept. 13 after U.S authorities intercepted contaminated shipments at the border for the second time in nine days and banned any further exports indefinitely.
According to The Calgary Herald, this review found that even these less rigorous protocols were not being followed by the company, allowing potentially tainted meat to end up on restaurant tables and grocery shelves.
“While containers of meat testing positive for E. coli 157:H7 were properly handled, a small number of containers produced before and after the contaminated product were not always diverted from the fresh meat line,” an agency summary said.
Yesterday in Ottawa, Liberal and NDP MPs lambasted the Conservative government for not notifying Canadians sooner about the problems at the XL plant. In a game of political ping-pong, the Conservatives then blamed the opposition NDP for standing in the way of new legislation to improve food safety and the CFIA’s ability to respond quickly to problems.
Meanwhile, Alberta Premier Alison Redford was on the defensive yesterday in saying that her government had contained the problems and that Alberta beef was in fact safe.
Officials in the Alberta and federal governments know they’re being very closely watched in how they handle this recall. And amid plenty of finger-pointing and criticism, there’s a lot of work to be done in resolving the XL problems and restoring the faith of Canadians in the country’s food supply chain.