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Poor Safety Controls Led to E.coli Outbreak

06 June 2013

CANADA - An independent review of the E.coli outbreak at the XL Foods beef processing plant at Brooks found a weak food safety culture at the plant, shared by both plant management and Canadian Food Inspection Agency staff.

The investigating panel said it found that one of the country's largest beef processors was unprepared to handle what turned out to be the largest beef recall in Canadian history.

It said that as the company had never conducted any mock recalls on a scale that remotely mimicked a real event, XL Foods Inc. found itself overwhelmed with the recall that occurred.

The E.coli outbreak made 18 people ill and sparked a recall of 4,000 tonnes of beef across Canada and the US.

In response to the report, the Canadian Government is to invest nearly C$16 million over the next three years to establish Inspection Verification Teams (IVTs) to oversee the performance of Canada's entire food inspection system.

IVTs will conduct unannounced spot checks of plants across the country. The IVTs are meant to ensure that the overall food safety system is effective and that food safety rules and standards are consistently and thoroughly followed and enforced. The IVT concept will address several of the panel's recommendations.

The investigators said that the establishment of a strong food safety culture must be a goal shared by all parties if it is to succeed.

“Each player in the continuum must do his or her part. Problems are inevitable if an individual at one station overlooks a problem in the expectation that someone at the next one will address it. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” the report says.

However the report adds that the incident also revealed some of the strengths of Canada's food safety system – from monitoring and surveillance, to recall and incident management – “but it also revealed several weaknesses”.

“Available documents clearly outline the processes that must be in place, the consultations that are to occur, and that the Public Health Agency of Canada is to lead communications in a national foodborne emergency, etc,” the report says.

“All these must work in a tightly coordinated and synchronized manner if Canadians are to have confidence in the food safety and public health authorities that serve them.

The Panel heard from players across both the food safety and supply spectrum, and said it was left with a very real sense that collaboration across the continuum can work.

The investigators were asked to establish how the contamination occurred and, moreover, how the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA, or Agency), its food safety partners, and XL Foods Inc. responded to the situation and to provide recommendations that would address any findings or conclusions.

Over the course of several weeks, the Panel met with dozens of stakeholders. These included beef producers and processors, health authorities and academics, the retail industry, and union representatives for both the company and the Agency.

“In this regard, we were left with a single overarching impression: everyone we interviewed expressed a keen desire to ensure that the food Canadians eat is safe. And they all wanted to be considered partners in the pursuit of that goal,” the report says.

“This is reassuring for the Canadian consumer; in fact, several industry representatives we met made the same remark: "We don't view food safety as a competitive issue."

“Yet, it was a series of inadequate responses by two key players in the food safety continuum that played the most critical part leading to the September 2012 event at XL Foods Inc. – plant and CFIA staff.”

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said: "Canadian families need to have confidence in our food safety system, which is why our Government initiated this independent review.

“We accept the panel's recommendations and are taking concrete steps to to ensure that our system continues to provide safe food for Canadian families today and in the future."

The Safe Food for Canadians Action Plan, introduced on 17 May, aims to further improve the food safety system by strengthening food safety rules, more effective inspection, a renewed commitment to service and more information for consumers.

Additional recommendations have already been addressed through the CFIA's recently announced enhancements to E. coli controls, which includes increased testing and documentation requirements of industry.

"Since this recall, our Government passed legislation to strengthen Canada's food safety system which will improve inspections, strengthen food safety rules, and improve communication with Canadian consumers. Our Government will continue to improve our food safety system to ensure that it continues to provide safe food for all Canadians," said Minister Ritz.

The CFIA, Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada are to work together to address all remaining recommendations of the expert advisory panel, the minister said.

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