The XL Foods beef recall over E. coli contamination and its detection was one of the top ag news stories of 2012. It’s unfortunate that bad news is big news, and even worse that once the dust settles we discover that what happened was preventable even within the existing rules and regulations. An independent panel’s report released today pins the blame of this food safety fiasco squarely on the shoulders of the plant and Canadian Food Inspection Agency staff and their overall lack of commitment to a food safety culture.
The report states that food safety rules and regulations were either not upheld or not checked on as a backstop to the regulations. Also of note, the panel found that XL Foods was completely unprepared for a recall of this magnitude, and had never done any sort of drill to prepare. A quote from the report:
We found that responsibilities towards food safety programs were not always met – by both plant staff and CFIA officials on site.
We found a relaxed attitude towards applying mandatory procedures – clearly outlined in some documents, less so in others. Again, a shortcoming shared by both plant and CFIA staff.
We found one of the country’s largest beef processors unprepared to handle what turned out to be the largest beef recall in Canadian history. As the company had never conducted any mock recalls on a scale that remotely mimicked a real event, XL Foods Inc. found itself overwhelmed with the recall that occurred.
In short, we found a weak food safety culture at the Brooks plant, shared by both plant management and CFIA staff.
In our view, the establishment of a strong food safety culture must be a goal shared by both parties if it is to succeed; each player in the continuum must do his or her part. Problems are inevitable if an individual at one station overlooks a problem in the expectation that someone at the next one will address it. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
The Canadian government has responded, and CFIA has posted its statement on the report, outlining what steps the government has outlined to remedy this gaping whole in the upholding of regulations by CFIA staff. The changes include the creation of a new layer of oversight to the existing system, so called “verification teams”, to the tune of $16 million and 30 staff.