Is our food safe?


What is the difference between Maple Leaf Food’s listeria bacteria outbreak four years ago and XL Foods Ltd.’s present E. coli outbreak?
The short answer is that Maple Leaf Foods voluntarily closed its plant immediately after it was found that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency matched the strain of bacteria to their Toronto facility.
“From our standpoint this is the right thing to do,” said Michael H. McCain, the president and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, when news that Listeria monocytogenes had contaminated prepared meat products at the company’s Toronto plant that caused 22 deaths and 35 cases of illness in a 2008 press release. “If there is any question in the consumers’ mind about any product from that plant, then the onus is on us, and the CFIA, to act decisively and swiftly to restore consumer confidence. Our actions are guided by putting public health first.
“I absolutely believe that this is not a failure of the Canadian food safety system or the regulators. Knowing there is a desire to assign blame ... the buck stops right here,” added McCain.
On the other hand, XL  had to have its licence revoked in order to cease operation of its Lakeside plant in Brooks, Alberta, on September 27, 14 days after the U.S. Food Inspection Agency had suspended importation of XL beef products. The U.S. agency first stopped a shipment of tainted products from the plant at the border on September 4, but the CFIA, during a routine inspection, also found E. coli contaminated beef but decided it didn’t present a danger and allowed the plant to continue operating. It was later determined that contaminated meat had been produced at the plant on August 24, 27, 28, 29 and September 5.
CFIA meat inspector director Richard Arsenault said last Monday that XL meat products had been exported to 20 countries, which were subsequently warned of the potential danger. So far, the same strain of E. coli has sickened 11 people across Canada.
Unlike McCain, XL executives have been eerily silent on the findings of contaminated meat. The company didn’t issue its first official product recall until September 26 — the list has since expanded to 1,800 products, which is the largest meat recall in Canadian history. It wasn’t until October 4 that an answering-machine message was posted by the company, saying, “We take full responsibility for our plant operations and the food it produces,”  and promised that, “The plant will re-open under intensified and enhanced testing protocols.”
While McCain was front and centre when the media came calling during the Listeria outbreak, XL officials have thus far refused to answer media questions.
In addition, CFIA, the federal government and Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz were slow to announce the discovery of the tainted meat and thus failed to protect the public. The CFIA’s first public announcement occurred on September 16.
The Canadian food industry has made great strides over the past century when it comes to consumer protection, although the present outbreak of food-borne disease shows the system is not infallible. Actually, the phrase “what a difference a century makes” aptly applies to the meat-packing industry. When it was announced in 1906 that the largest packing house in Winnipeg had been bought by an American company, it solicited a public outcry and became an issue in the Canadian Parliament. “If Americans were coming to Canada and going into the packing business an inspection of methods was all the more desirable,” said Senator Bernier. Senator Cartwright expressed astonishment at the “astounding disclosures of the American packing methods,” and promised the government was prepared to deal with the question of meat inspection.
The alarm over the meat-packing industry in Chicago — American poet Carl Sandburg's “hog butcher for the world” —  was prompted by a serialized novel by Upton Sinclair that weekly graced the pages of the socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason, starting in February 1905. Called The Jungle, Sinclair’s serial became so popular that it was published in book form in 1906. Sinclair’s novel contained tales of rat feces ground into sausages, gangrenous cattle butchered and sold, so-called disease-riddled “downers” physically carried to the slaughterhouse, as well as dyes and chemicals used to disguise foul-smelling decomposing tinned meat which led to the outcry. “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” Sinclair remarked.
At the time, Canada relied heavily upon the Chicago packers to supply public demand for tinned meat.
“All the reports of the press regarding the filthy conditions surrounding the preparation of meat in the packing houses are not in the least exaggerated,” P. Smith, a visitor from Chicago, told a reporter for the Winnipeg Morning Telegram. “Carcasses wholly unfit for consumption ... have been thrown into the rendering tank and then taken from there by a trap door ... to be sold to the people of Chicago as pure meat.” It is no wonder that Winnipeggers were suspicious of an American company taking over the city’s largest meat-packing plant. 
When Sinclair’s novel was published, the meat-packing tycoons vigorously protested that their plants were well-inspected (actually, they bribed inspectors to turn a blind eye) and claimed their kill floors and canning facilities were impeccably clean. Ogden Armour, owner of one of the largest meat-packing plants in Chicago, responded in anger after the subject of unsanitary conditions was brought up. “I say that no sane man, nobody with the slightest knowledge of the packing trade as it is conducted in Chicago, can believe the horror stories in the newspapers,” he claimed. 
The profit-driven Chicago meat-packers of 1906 would accept no blame and had absolutely no concern whatsoever about the safety of their products. As a result, consumers of the era en masse boycotted meat products. Canada “benefitted materially by the cry raised over the filthy condition of Chicago packing houses,” as it forced the federal government to ensure domestic abattoirs underwent closer inspections, a process that still needs refinement based upon the Alberta plant’s tainted products reaching the marketplace. The existing Compliance Verification System (CVS)  outlines the testing and safety measures that private meat plants are expected to conduct. CFIA inspectors continue to monitor plant activities, but are also expected to review the safety reports and tests conducted by operators. But the CVS protocals failed to prevent the E.coli outbreak. 
Fortunately, the CFIA said the Alberta facility won’t reopen until “the CFIA is fully satisfied that the plant has implemented effective controls to manage food safety risks at all stages of production.”