by SUSAN MANN
The Ontario agriculture ministry is trying to determine if any contaminated beef from an Alberta plant had been further processed in provincial plants.
The ministry sent out a letter today to all provincial meat processing and further processing plants informing them of the situation with the Alberta plant, XL Foods Inc. and advising them to contact it for assistance on "how to move forward" or to contact the Canadian Food Inspection Agency immediately, said Mark Cripps, press secretary for Ontario Agriculture Minister Ted McMeekin.
Cripps said there have been four confirmed cases of illness associated with people eating meat processed at the Alberta plant, XL Foods Inc., possibly contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7. None of the cases is in Ontario.
Ontario’s meat regulations contain tough standards, he said. “Food safety is our priority.”
Cripps stressed that Ontario beef is safe to eat. And so did Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Mark Wales who planned to continue eating it every day. “This is about some products at one plant in Alberta, granted it (the plant) does cut a third of Canada’s beef.”
Wales said the government’s actions to temporarily shut down the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alberta and recall potentially affected product are positive. And there will be lots of discussions on whether the government should have acted sooner.
The CFIA was first alerted to a problem on Sept. 4 when products from an Alberta processing facility supplied by XL Foods tested positive for E. coli 0157:H7. On the same day the agency learned American officials had found E. coli in a shipment of beef trimmings from XL Foods at the border. The company’s first voluntary recall of ground beef and related products took place 12 days later.
The recall initially involved ground beef and related products made Aug. 24, Aug. 27 to 29 and Sept. 5. It has expanded several times since then and now includes muscle cuts, such as roasts and steak, from those same five production days. Beef soup bones and even beef jerky are among an estimated 1,500 products being recalled from stores across Canada and the United States. The U.S. closed the border on Sept. 13 to product from XL Foods.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has suspended XL Foods’ operating license until the company demonstrates it has fully implemented required corrective actions. The suspension was imposed Sept. 27. All products currently at the plant are under CFIA detention and control and will only be released after being tested for E. coli 0157:H7.
Wales said he wants to be careful in offering his opinion on the government’s handling of the recall because “all we really have is the news and news tends to report it from a sensational standpoint sometimes.”
Ron Bonnett, Canadian Federation of Agriculture president and an Ontario cow calf producer, noted Ontario beef is not affected and added that the system responded the way it was supposed to and “got that product. Even if you look at the chain stores, they responded in getting the product off the shelves.”
In a news release, the National Farmers Union notes that prices for fat steers and cull cows have already dropped by 20 and 30 per cent respectively.
Welland MP Malcolm Allen, the New Democratic Party’s agriculture critic, said during an interview Tuesday he doesn’t know if the recall would directly affect Ontario beef sales. But he expressed concern about the possibility that consumers wary of the recall might avoid all Canadian beef products, including those produced here since it isn’t always labeled as coming from Ontario.
“For consumers to distinguish the two when they go to the retail outlet, it’s hard,” he said.
Allen said he’s critical of federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz’s handling of the recall.
“Clearly not only were Canadians not told for two weeks” that there was a problem with beef products from XL Foods but last week in the House of Commons when he questioned Ritz about the situation, Allen said the minister responded that “none of this has reached the store shelves. Of course the opposite is true and we now see the largest beef recall in Canadian history.”
Allen said Ritz was incorrect when he said that. “Which tells me he’s not on top of his file. If he doesn’t know the reality that all that food is out there then he’s not on top of his file.”
He also expressed skepticism about Ritz’s explanation: that CFIA officials in early September contained a batch of beef trimmings from XL Foods at a Calgary plant after it tested positive for E. coli 0157:H7, along with loads shipped immediately before and after. “He was playing a game with words suggesting there wasn’t any out there,” Allen said.
Ritz wasn’t in the house earlier this week to answer questions, he added. In the first two days of the week, NDP MPs asked 14 questions on food safety. “We’re now getting answers from everybody but the agriculture minister.”
Ritz said during a press conference Wednesday in Alberta the government provides the CFIA with the resources to safeguard Canadians’ health and safety including, since 2006, enough money to add 700 more inspectors, of which 170 are meat inspectors.
In an emergency debate in the House of Commons on Wednesday night, however, Allen said the additional 170 inspectors aren’t necessarily in meat plants like XL Foods but are “in the ready to eat meat program.”
Guelph MP Frank Valeriote, the Liberal agriculture critic, asked during the emergency debate if Ritz would consent to a comprehensive, third-party audit of resources necessary to operate the CFIA and if the government would “finally agree to give our food inspection agency the powers and resources they need to keep Canadians safe.”
Ritz, who was in Alberta Wednesday touring the XL Foods Inc. plant, said the plant will only resume operations when CFIA president George Da Pont confirms in writing to him “the health of Canadians is not at risk.” Ritz didn’t attend Wednesday night’s emergency debate as he was flying back from Alberta.
In an Oct. 3 statement on its website, CFIA said products on the recall list may continue to expand as officials continue with their trace out from XL Foods to secondary and tertiary distributors, manufacturers and retailers. BF