Canada's food safety measures don't work

The XL Foods beef recall showed that our food safety measures simply don’t work. Luckily, there’s a simpler way to protect Canadians—and it isn’t what you think.

(Photo: Pablo Castagnola/Redux)

E. coli 0157:H7 is a nasty bacterium to contract. Victims can be wracked with stomach cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting. At last count, 15 Canadians suffered through the effects of E. coli after eating tainted meat from a slaughterhouse in Brooks, Alta., operated by XL Foods. Since September, more than 2,000 food products have been pulled from store shelves across the country, including ground beef, sausages and steak, all of which were processed by XL. The incident marks the largest beef recall in the country’s history. The fact that only 15 people fell ill, given the magnitude of the recall, is more of a lucky break than a testament to the strength of our food-safety regime. There were 40 Canadian Food Inspection Agency workers and six veterinarians on-site at the XL facility, and yet it was U.S. authorities that first detected E. coli in beef trimmings—not Canadians.

Soon afterward, the union representing XL workers held a press conference to accuse management of sacrificing safety for profit. The Brooks plant, the second largest in Canada, can process 4,000 cattle every day, the equivalent of 3,000 steaks an hour. According to the union, the drive to pump out as much beef as possible left little time to follow safety procedures, such as ensuring knives were sanitized, or that the water used to hose down cattle was hot enough. Hearing those allegations, consumers might be tempted to conclude that meat from the kind of small, local producers where you can chat up the butcher are inherently safer. But that’s not true, nor is it a realistic prescription for improving food safety. “If you compare the meat coming out of a large facility to the meat from a small farmer’s market, you can bet that they’re equally the same in terms of safety,” says Keith Warriner, a food-science professor at the University of Guelph. The reality is, industrialized meat processing can be as safe as smaller, specialized butchers, and besides, it isn’t going anywhere soon. “It’s what you need to supply people with cheap food on demand,” Warriner says.

The question, then, is how to make large-scale meat production safer. Government and regulators can tighten standards, and better technology can be introduced to detect and reduce contamination. But at XL, the fundamental problem wasn’t the tools or the regulations, but a general disregard for basic standards. “Companies have the primary responsibility for food safety,” says Rick Holley, a professor of food science at the University of Manitoba. “Without that, we’re all screwed.” To reduce the chances of another XL debacle, the solution isn’t more inspectors or better processes. Instead, the meat industry needs to do the one thing it has so far avoided: talk openly and publicly about the manufacturing process. In short, it’s time for them to show us how the sausage is made.

Canada’s food safety system is, by some measures, pretty good. A ranking of 17 industrialized countries conducted by the University of Guelph in 2010 put Canada in fourth place, tied with the United States. E. coli infections, according to the CFIA, have actually fallen over the years. Nevertheless, the country has experienced its share of outbreaks. After 22 Canadians died in 2008 from eating listeria-contaminated deli meats from Maple Leaf Foods, the entire food industry, including regulators and academics, asked the same questions: How did this happen? And how can we prevent it from happening again? One of the investigations that followed was the Weatherill report, an independent inquiry funded by the federal government. Some experts argue the most important conclusion of the report was the importance of having a strong food-safety culture within the industry, something that was lacking at Maple Leaf’s plant. Though employees regularly screened for listeria, staff did not analyze the data to recognize a repeated pattern of listeria contamination. Maple Leaf acknowledged that such trend analysis may have identified the problem sooner. The same lack of safety culture was evident at the XL plant. The investigation conducted by the CFIA before suspending XL’s license found numerous infractions. Employees handled contaminated beef trimmings without following proper sanitization procedures, for example, and a dozen water hose nozzles, used to wash carcasses, were clogged. “The necessary thing about safe regulation is that the industry takes ownership of it,” says Warriner at Guelph. To really establish a good food-safety culture, a company has to become transparent and realize that safety can drive rather then erode profits. And how is that possible? By turning safety into a marketing tool.

Doug Powell, a food scientist and professor at Kansas State University has simple advice to food producers: “Provide information to consumers so that they can choose and reward those companies with good food-safety practices.” Consumers who currently want to select a package of ground beef at a grocery store based on which producer is safest are out of luck. Some meat products, such as chicken breasts, feature brand names like Maple Leaf, but for others it’s unclear where they were actually produced.

Compare that to the restaurant industry. Many municipal governments have instituted a report-card system so patrons can gauge a restaurant’s safety record before deciding where to dine. Before buying meat at a grocery store, safety-conscious consumers should be able to go to a producer’s website to learn about the risks associated with the products, what the company does to mitigate those risks, where mistakes have been made in the past, and how they’ve been rectified. Companies can essentially use safety as a competitive advantage. “I would argue food safety is a pretty good money-maker,” Powell says.

Consider how corporations in other sectors have differentiated themselves by trumpeting their dedication to safety. Volvo advertised its safety record more aggressively in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s when the government instituted stricter automobile regulations. “It shouldn’t take an act of Congress to make cars safe” was one memorable tag line. Newspaper ads detailed how the company installed seat belts and padded dashboards years before it became mandatory, and explained how Volvo continued to exceed government standards. There is arguably even more opportunity now for a food producer to stand out than there was for Volvo decades ago. A whole variety of factors influence car-buying decisions. When consumers buy ground beef, however, they might consider price, but that’s it. Drawing attention to safety is one way to differentiate your product.

Opening up is risky, naturally, and no company is enthusiastic about challenging the status quo. So meat processors have remained steadfastly opaque, both here and in the U.S., Powell says.

Of course, it’s difficult for producers to boast how their standards exceed regulatory requirements when, in at least a few cases, firm guidelines don’t exist. For example, Canadian producers are required to take 60 samples from every lot of beef trim (lower-quality pieces of meat that end up in ground beef) and test them for E. coli. When a test comes back positive, a company has to divert the lot for use in other products, such as pet food. If the percentage of contaminated lots is unusually high on a given day, then no meat can be released without reprocessing or retesting—a timely and costly exercise from the producer’s perspective. In the U.S., the regulator recommends a company take such drastic measures if the percentage of positive tests hits 5%. There is no firm equivalent in Canada. Instead, each processor decides on that magic number with oversight from the CFIA. XL operated with a minimum threshold of 10%, which didn’t raise alarms for either the company’s independent auditor or the CFIA. The agency is only now establishing a recommended threshold for industry. But whatever CFIA decides, meat processors should aim higher. “The best companies go far above minimal government standards and brag about it,” Powell says.

Producers can also build trust with consumers—not to mention prevent them from getting ill—by employing better labelling to tell them what’s been done to their food before they buy it. In the case of XL, some experts were initially puzzled when four people in Edmonton contracted E. coli from steak. If a slab of beef is contaminated, the bacteria are usually on the surface and, in the case of steak, will be killed when cooked. The inside is generally pathogen-free, which is why it’s acceptable to eat steak rare. But sometimes steaks undergo a process called “needle tenderization,” in which a marinade is injected or blades pierce the meat to break down tough fibers. (It’s essentially a way for processors to pass off cheaper cuts of meat as higher-quality steaks.) But by puncturing the surface, E. coli on the outside can be pushed to the interior. “If it’s needle-tenderized, you sort of have to treat it like a hamburger,” Powell says, and ensure the meat is cooked all the way through. Consumers have no idea whether or not a steak has been needle-tenderized—and therefore no idea how to properly handle it—because there are no labelling requirements at the grocery store. Authorities in the U.S. are slowly moving toward labelling, but they face opposition from the meat industry, which is pushing for more study on the risks before any decision is made. (The CFIA hasn’t confirmed whether needle-tenderization played a role in Edmonton illnesses, but it looks like a prime suspect.)

In general, the meat industry is slow to adopt new measures, potentially missing opportunities to better serve consumers. There is already a vaccine on the market to inoculate against E. coli 0157, the strain behind the XL outbreak, but few farms are using it. Bioniche Life Sciences, based in Belleville, Ont., developed the vaccine years ago, and it’s been approved in Canada since late 2008. The company claims it’s been shown to reduce E. coli colonization in a cow’s intestines by up to 98.3%, and reduce “shedding,” the presence of the bacteria in feces, by 65%. Today, well under 5% of cattle in Canada are inoculated with the vaccine, which is called Econiche. “No one, to any large degree, is requesting or requiring that the vaccine be used,” says Rick Culbert, the company’s president of food safety. There is simply no immediate business reason for either cattle farmers or meat processors to voluntarily start using it. The vaccine seems cheap at $3 per dose, but cattle can require multiple doses, and the costs can escalate into the thousands of dollars depending on the size of a herd. That attitude is short-sighted. The users of Econiche today are typically small farms that sell meat under their own names. “For them, this is their reputation,” Culbert says.

For it to become widespread, the vaccine will either have to be mandated—a long and political process—or the industry has to take ownership of the problem and recognize that measures to stop E. coli at the source are an important safeguard. “We know this strain of E. coli comes from cattle,” Culbert says, “so why do we wait until it walks through the packing-plant door to deal with it?”

The drive to improve safety and transparency extends across the entire production chain. Ideally, retailers would cut out meat suppliers that don’t match or exceed certain standards. In the restaurant industry, for example, McDonald’s uses its considerable heft to drop suppliers that don’t show continuous safety improvements. Likewise, meat processors would only accept cattle from farms that work to reduce the presence of E. coli and other pathogens.

For now, consumers can only have faith that most producers are playing by the rules. Even Holley at the University of Manitoba, for all of his concerns about food safety in Canada, isn’t particularly selective about where his food comes from. “It’s my hope that I will play the statistics and avoid food from those processors who are not behaving acceptably,” he says. “It’s all a numbers game.” But with better information, consumers can at least improve their odds.