Canada: Food safety, E. coli outbreak in Alberta meat factory
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Canada: Food safety, E. coli outbreak in Alberta meat factory

Edmonton : Canada | Oct 06, 2012 at 11:37 AM PDT
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Tainted Beef Discovered in US

The Alberta economy is dependent on the Alberta oil sands, agriculture, tourism and the service sector. Diversifying the economy has been particularly challenging since the development of the oil sands started in he 1970s. Several years ago "Mad Cow Disease" hit cattle producers hard in Alberta, especially when export of cattle was stopped to the U.S. and Asian markets.

Fast forward to 2012. Cattle producers are one again being hit by an e-coli outbreak in a factory in Brooks, Alberta. What started with a recall of minced meat products just a couple of weeks ago has now been expanded to most beef products that were produced at the XL Foods plant. The plant produces approximately on third of the meat products in the province.

It goes without saying that this has hit cattle producers hard, who generally sell their cattle before winter to escape the high feeding costs in winter. Cattle in Alberta are primarily pasture-fed and require approximately 220 days of feeding with grain and hay from mid October to May. Simple economics dictate that if you flood the market with cattle prices go down. Cattle producers have just recovered from the mad cow fiasco.

Politicians will tell you that the meat is OK as long as you cook it well. Will anyone take a chance, though, knowing that in Alberta alone five people have been infected with the e.coli bug? The answer is that some might, but most people will chose another meat in their diet.

The plant's role

Although government inspectors have been in the plant to check for these type of infection, the company had a responsibility to ensure that their equipment was sanitized, in order to deliver as clean a product as is humanly possible to the consumers.

There have been reports from former employees that for management the bottom line was mass production. In an article in Canada's Globe and Mail the author Josh Windgrove describes in very simple terms the life on the assembly line:

"You have 35 seconds: Gut the cow without damaging its organs, and be sure not to drop the stomach on the floor. Do not cut yourself with the swift-moving blade; do not touch the scalding sanitary surfaces. Then, walk in hot water to clean your white rubber boots. Swap your knife out and start over again. Again and again."

One can easily see how monotonous this job can get. Add to that the fact that there is an employee crisis in Alberta, which requires the hiring of temporary foreign employees, many of them from the poorest countries, without the protection of Canadian workers. Many of them don't speak English and the results are self-evident.

But who are these workers? Until the 1980s, meatpacking—in Brooks and elsewhere in Alberta—was a decent job. Workers were usually unionized and the pay was good. Edmonton’s four plants made it the meatpacking capital of Western Canada. In just a few decades, everything changed. Salaries spiralled downward and jobs were concentrated in fewer and larger plants. The job became more demanding and more repetitive as line speeds increased. Fewer and fewer Albertans were interested in the job, so the packing companies started to recruit from farther and farther away. Alberta Views

This is not to slant these temporary workers. The problem is primarily related to the large number of workers needed for the Alberta oil sands. In fact small business leaders in Calgary met with the mayor yesterday to address this problem. They quoted the example of a secretary earning a salary of $50,000 in the oil industry, while small business only pay about $30,000.

The Federal Government's Role

What occurred at the XL Food Plant highlights the point that this company did not self-regulate and that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) had a role to ensure that its inspectors were well-trained and actually took the job of conducting meat inspections serious. Whether or not that occurred remains to be seen as details become known. One thing is certain; somehow the plant continued processing and distributing tainted meat.

The fact that the recall keeps expanding on the heels of the plant shutdown should make it evident that something in the production chain went wrong.

The plant and government were slow to respond and the bottom line is that as a result the public's health was at risk. In fact the bug was first discovered by USDA when the meat was imported. Why did Canadian inspectors not discover it?

At least five people have become ill after eating beef from the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta., which has ceased production amid a massive recall of the beef processed there. Another 18 cases are still being investigated to see if they are linked as well.

The conditions of the five confirmed cases have not been released. CTV

Conclusions

While one should not make assumptions to draw conclusions based on preliminary info and heresay, one can probably draw the conclusion that:

  • There needs to be a more rigorous inspection process;
  • That the pace of production may be too fast and should be reviewed.
  • Training of foreign temporary workers must be thorough and there may even be a requirement for an examimation to ensure they know the sanitary requirements
  • Sanitary procedures must be reviewed and management must ensure that they are followed.

These would be good starting points for an investigation and the public must be assured that the plant is safe prior to reopening.

Both the government and the company have an obligation to cattle producers, good taxpayers all, to ensure they get adequate compensation for their losses. How that happens is up to both the Alberta and Canadian government. In any case the plant has a moral obligation. Cattle producers take great care in the husbandry of their animals.

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Typical beef lay out in a large super market. Where is the beef? (AFP)
Karl Gotthardt is based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and is an Anchor on Allvoices.
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  • Typical beef lay out in a large super market. Where is the beef? (AFP)

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