The Canadian Food Inspection Agency vowed again to tighten the rules at slaughterhouses, as the country's largest-ever beef recall expanded Tuesday to more than 1,500 products.
But as the government continues to grapple with the massive recall of meat from the XL Foods facility in Brooks, Alta., experts are probing why — four years after the federal government vowed to fix problems of food safety following a deadly listeriosis outbreak in deli meats — big gaps in the food safety system still exist.
This time, Canada's second-largest slaughterhouse is at the centre of the potential E. coli 0157:H7 contamination of hundreds of beef products, now linked definitively to five cases in Alberta of people becoming sick after eating tainted beef. Saskatchewan public health officials, meanwhile, are investigating whether a recent spike in E. coli cases in that province is connected to the Alberta plant. No one in B.C. has been sickened by meat linked to the recall, the Provincial Health Services Authority said Monday.
Richard Arsenault, CFIA's director of meat inspection, said Tuesday the agency will establish a firm threshold that requires companies to divert or dispose of beef trimmings if positive test results for E. coli reach a certain percentage on "high event days" — days when higher-than-normal detections of E. coli are made. (Beef trimmings are material taken off the carcass that is not suitable for steak but is used for hamburger.)
"Nobody could agree on that (threshold), so we essentially asked people to keep on eye and look at it. But there wasn't a lot of structure about how people went at that," Arsenault told Postmedia News. "I'm fairly confident we're going to have that as well, I just don't know what the number is going to be."
The commitment to establish a threshold follows a pledge Monday by CFIA that it will also bring in a rule requiring companies to analyze test results of beef trimmings so they can identify emerging food-safety problems.
Consumer demand for cheap food in addition to costly inspection protocols that forced out smaller operators has resulted in B.C. getting most of its beef from just two processing plants in Alberta, one of which is the XL Foods facility at the centre of the recall, according to a local food expert.
There used to be many smaller abattoirs throughout rural B.C., but a government crackdown after the listeriosis outbreak in 2008 led to new regulations too expensive for smaller operators to comply with, said Jim Vercammen, a professor of food and resource economics at the University of B.C.
"Our demand for regulation and safer foods results in bigger plants, and fewer of them. But the other thing is, as consumers, we don't realize it, but every time we try to save a nickel by buying cheaper meat, we are ... giving firms incentive to drive down their cost," he said.
By concentrating processing equipment and feedlots in one place, large plants can achieve significant economies of scale, Vercammen explained. The XL Foods facility, for example, processes about 4,000 animals a day.
"That really does bring down costs because you can get assembly lines and get ... very, very efficient production when you have that many animals going through."
B.C. does not raise enough cattle to justify building such large-scale facilities here, said Paul Gumprich, a livestock instructor at the University of the Fraser Valley and a beef farmer.
Local experts were divided when asked whether an expected supply shortage due to the XL Foods closure would affect beef prices in B.C. ...
Source: Argentine Beef Packers S.A.
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