Food for thought on CFIA and tainted beef: Maybe the system actually works?

XL Foods’ bad beef has affected only 15 people, and all are alive and well


Here’s a random example of the kind of thing middle-class food purchasers like to hear these days, taken from the website of a restaurant on the Prairies: “Comfort and familiarity are combined with sophistication in the food, drinks and atmosphere alike. Food and drink preparation in an open kitchen provides an engaging and unique environment in which guests can connect with the food as well as each other. And it’s food you can feel good about—[we use] sustainable and local ingredients whenever possible.”

There’s a powerful desire afoot for “food you can feel good about,” perhaps all the more so because of the headlines about meat processor XL Foods and its problems with a harmful strain of the bacterium E. coli. XL Foods is the country’s second-largest meat packer and exports beef to more than 20 countries. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) found E. coli O157 in a sample from XL Foods on Sept. 4 and began to organize corrective measures. On Sept. 13, two people were reported by the national Public Health Agency to have come down with bacterial illness traceable to the plant. The largest beef recall in Canada’s history began as fear spread through the country, and the Toronto Star declared that the Conservative federal government was having its “Walkerton moment.”

A couple of weeks later, with the XL plant in Brooks, Alta., hoping to meet CFIA standards and reopen shortly, one has to say that if this is the kind of Walkerton moment we can expect these days, somebody must be doing something right. The Walkerton water calamity sickened 2,500 residents of the Ontario town and killed seven of them. XL Foods’ bad beef has affected 15 people, and all are alive and well.

In the meantime, much of the terror of industrialized capitalist deathburgers inspired by local reporting on E. coli cases has turned out to be somewhat fanciful. Saskatchewan had a spike in E. coli O157 cases beginning in late August, encountering a surprising 15 cases. Officials feared a link to the recalled meat from XL Foods. Had a corporate behemoth from Alberta caused devastation in a neighbouring province? As it turns out, no. In all cases, the offending bacteria had a different genetic fingerprint, which ruled out XL as a source. Four of the illnesses were caused by undercooked or otherwise improperly handled food in one household. Another eight were attributed to the Flip Eatery in downtown Regina, which had to close for a couple of weeks and undergo an investigation by Regina-Qu’Appelle Health Region officials. You’ve probably guessed that Flip is the home of the “sustainable and local” food “you can feel good about” we mentioned before.

Here’s what Canada should really feel good about: it apparently has no worse news than the XL recall with which to consume column inches and time in question period. Some vendor at this year’s annual fair in Cleveland County, S.C., which ended Oct. 7, infected at least 38 people with E. coli. That included a two-year-old, who died, and at least seven more people whose kidneys have failed; three have had to be placed on dialysis. That outbreak has, thus far, gotten a grand total of 88 words of coverage in the New York Times. No one is suggesting a failure on any level of government. Indeed, the American food safety system, because it detected and stopped XL Foods’ tainted beef at the border, is being upheld by the parliamentary Opposition as a model for ours.

Our system is probably best judged by its overall results, and, as it happens, they suggest the exact opposite of a chaotic, crumbling food-safety apparatus. The Public Health Agency’s national enteric surveillance program tracks E. coli O157 cases across the country. Since 2006, when the CFIA introduced a new “compliance verification system” (and the Conservatives were elected), the totals have plunged from over 900 in 2006 and 2007 to fewer than 500 in 2010 and 2011. Over the past decade as a whole, the reported rate of infections has declined by almost two-thirds. So maybe, just maybe, the system works?

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