“At each stage, the E. coli sneaked through. It came in with the feces caked on the hide of at least one cow, a so-called “super-shedder” of bacteria, and persevered. The E. coli wasn’t caught on the kill floor, survived cleaning and clung on during dehiding, in which a cow’s skin is peeled away.
It reached the cutting table – a bacteria watershed, where the cow is cut into different types of beef, including “trim,” the odds and ends that become hamburger. The E. coli went undetected in the 325 grams of beef trim tested from this particular 2,000-pound batch, so it moved through. When alarms sounded, it was in stores.
s Ottawa eyes changes to food safety programs, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is seeking the cause of an E. coli outbreak at XL Foods in Brooks, Alta. There wasn’t one massive failure, but tiny ones that added up. Officials say the system worked, more or less, but couldn’t stop it.
“That super-shedder that we had way upstream got through all those hoops and hurdles, and looked clean, [but] had just enough E. coli to basically get there [undetected],” CFIA meat programs director Richard Arsenault says.
The CFIA says the company failed in “trend analysis,” or connecting the dots of tests that showed E. coli in discarded batches, but questions remain. Testing may need improvement. Cross contamination, particularly at an Edmonton Costco store, made things worse. The union that represents workers at the facility has said the production line moves too fast and the hot water for washing surfaces once failed. Messages left for company executives and spokesmen were not returned on Monday.
Whatever caused it, the recall is one of the largest in Canadian history, at more than 1.5-million pounds of beef from every province and territory. Nine people have fallen ill, four of them tied by genetic testing to tainted meat. It all raises questions about the system itself – if everything worked, more or less, how can super-shedders be caught in the future? (Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, whose file includes the CFIA, has declined interviews.)
The XL Foods plant is one of the three largest slaughterhouses in Canada; many smaller producers buy killed, skinned and cleaned carcasses from there. It was at another plant – the CFIA won’t say which – that testing on beef trim came back positive for E. coli on Sept. 4. The plant had got the carcass from XL Foods. A day earlier, U.S. officials found E. coli in an XL shipment at the border. CFIA officials swarmed the Brooks plant trying to figure out what went wrong. But they still let it operate, thinking it was a one-off. People were already getting sick. The recall began Sept. 16, and the shutdown was announced Sept. 27.