Canada's food-inspection agency is rejecting claims of a two-tier safety system, contending beef destined for Canadian dinner plates receives the same scrutiny as meat exported to Japan.
The union representing federal inspectors had raised concerns about the handling of cattle carcasses at the embattled XL Foods beef-processing plant in meetings last month with Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) brass. As a result of those concerns, a 2008 memo advising inspection staff to ignore contamination and defects on carcasses that weren't headed to Japan was revised two weeks ago to instruct inspectors to relay problems spotted.
Paul Mayers, an associate vice-president with the CFIA, stressed Thursday the same food-safety standards are being applied to beef consumed by Canadians, just at other points on the production line. He said the memo wasn't setting up a two-tier food-safety system at XL Foods, the country's second-largest meat packer. Rather, it was offering directions for a station dedicated to exports for Japan. Since the detection of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in Canadian cattle in 2003, Japan has required a separate station at beef-processing plants to scrutinize meat slated for its consumers. The country also doesn't accept beef from Canadian cows older than 20 months.
"That station focused on product for Japan," Mr. Mayers said. "What that means is for product destined elsewhere, whether it is for the domestic market or to other markets, that station is not responsible for inspection with respect to that and that's why that station would ignore carcasses that are not destined for Japan."
Earlier this fall, the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta., was at the centre of an E. coli outbreak and Canada's largest-ever beef recall. By the time the CFIA suspended the plant's operating licence on Sept. 27, more than 20 countries had received recalled XL beef products. At least 18 Canadians were made ill by E. coli after eating tainted meat from the Alberta slaughterhouse.
Management of the plant, owned by Edmonton-based XL Foods, has been taken over by JBS USA, a subsidiary of Brazilian food giant JBS S.A., whose largest shareholders are its founding family and the Brazilian government. JBS USA is mulling over whether to buy the slaughterhouse, which employs about 2,000 people and is a major economic driver in the small city of Brooks.
CFIA cleared the slaughterhouse to resume operations late last month, but the XL Foods plant is still prohibited form sending beef to the United States. Mr. Mayers said the food-inspection agency recommended last week the plant be re-listed for export to the U.S. The American food-inspection agency has not yet made a decision.
Despite the CFIA's assertions, the head of the union representing federal government inspectors maintained there were problems with the 2008 memo. The document said contaminants would be detected later in the production process, but Agriculture Union president Bob Kingston disputed that.
Keith Warriner, a food-safety specialist at the University of Guelph, said the dispute points to communication strains between front-line inspectors and CFIA managers. "I think the current level of standards, if they're followed, is sufficient," Dr. Warriner said. "It's just that when we get inspectors that are not allowed to follow those standards, that's where issues come [forward]."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story included inaccurate information about the production process at XL Foods. This online version has been corrected.