From the House - Week of October 5 to October 12, 2012 - The E-Coli Outbreak and Beef Recall

October 4th, 2012 - 5:20pm

The largest recall of beef in Canadian history is underway and expanding.   At the time of writing this column no one, including Gerry Ritz the Harper Government’s Minister for Agriculture, knows when it will end, how many more products will be added, and when the actual problem will even be identified at the processing plant in question.  I think it’s prudent at this point to take a look at what has happened and what we know at this point.

For those who may not know, the largest recall of beef products in Canadian history is currently under way due to the presence of E-Coli bacteria being found in meat products that were processed at XL Foods in Alberta between August 24th and September 5th.  The first flag in this outbreak came, not from Canadian officials, but American Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) staff who inspected the meat on September 4th as it crossed the border.  The next day an investigation was launched by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) which confirmed the presence of E-Coli in some lots of beef products.

Despite initial assurances from the CFIA and the Minister of Agriculture that no tainted meat reached Canadian store shelves, we know this is not the case and since their initial statements the crisis has intensified.  The Ministry of Health for Alberta notified the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) on September 18th that 5 new cases of E-Coli infection were discovered in that province, with four of the cases being linked to tainted meat purchased in an Edmonton Costco store.  The province of Saskatchewan is also investing 13 cases of E-Coli poisoning that they suspect is linked to the XL plant at the centre of the crisis.  On September 27th, almost a full month after the original date of production for suspect products, the CFIA finally suspended XL Foods license until the source of the contamination could be identified and resolved.  The beef recall has so far been expanded seven times and may expand further as this particular XL Foods slaughterhouse is the second largest in Canada employing more than 2,200 people and processing up to 4,300 head of cattle a day.

Since the source of the E-Coli outbreak has not been found as of the writing of this column it is impossible to say what the immediate cause was and who should be held accountable if anyone.  However, we do know that the Harper Government has a checkered past, to be kind, when it comes to food safety.  The Listeriosis outbreak of 2008, which resulted in 57 confirmed cases and 23 deaths, also happened under the Harper Government’s watch.  At that time, Conservative Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz joked about the incident being a “death by a thousand cold cuts” for his government, but nonetheless pledged to toughen inspection measures.  We also must not forget that many of the Ministers sitting in Mr. Harper’s government were also Ministers in the Progressive Conservative government in Ontario during the Walkerton tragedy when 7 people lost their lives and 2,100 became ill during an E-Coli contamination in that community.  

Taking the above information into consideration, we could be seeing the continuation of a dangerous pattern – Conservative government cuts to food and water inspectors followed by public outbreaks – but it’s simply too early to tell.  What we do know is that in the last federal budget, the 426-page ‘omnibus’ bill, the CFIA which is in charge of keeping our food supply safe is set to lose $46.6 million in funding, including $20 million directly from the ‘Food Safety Program’ envelope.  We also know that to reduce their operating budget in line with the Harper Government’s demands, that this vital agency has a strategic plan to cut 315 jobs in the next three years, including veterinarians and inspectors, which is approximately five percent of all staff.  Even before this latest outbreak, New Democrats believed that it was incredibly reckless and irresponsible for the Harper Government to cut millions from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Food Safety Program while blowing $27 billion on just 65 fighter planes that are unable to fly in the arctic and which are 300% over budget before receiving a single plane.

I would like to urge readers who enjoy meat and may have purchased some in the last 45 days to check their freezer and to consult the health warning issued by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to see if their product is on the recall notice.  I’ve used a special website to shorten the name of the web address, but the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) website has a master list of products that have been recalled by store can be found a  Several local grocers and outlets are
listed, so please do take a moment to consult this list and check your labels.  In
the meantime, New Democrats will continue to demand answers from the government and ensure that someone is held accountable for this entirely preventable public health crisis.