The fallout from an E. coli contamination at an Alberta slaughterhouse continues to spread, with more than 1,100 products now being recalled as Premier Alison Redford urges consumers to keep buying her province's beef.
The number of illnesses tied to the beef recall, meanwhile, remained stable over the weekend at nine – all of them in Alberta. One of the people who fell ill, four-year-old Sarah Demoskoff, underwent surgery Sunday and a woman at the family's home said her condition is "improving." After eating a burger on Labour Day weekend, the Calgary girl got sick. She was taken to hospital Sept. 11 and later suffered kidney failure. Her family expects her to be released from hospital this week.
Public scrutiny around the illnesses and recall – one of the largest in Canadian history, involving at least 1.5 million pounds of beef – now threatens the bottom line of western ranchers. They face a two-pronged problem: not only has the closing of the massive slaughterhouse bottlenecked the sector, but the scrutiny may scare consumers away from beef.
It's the ranchers that Ms. Redford cited during a photo-op at a ranch near Calgary on Sunday, designed to show support for the sector, which exported $968-million in beef last year.
Ms. Redford hasn't reached out to any of the nine who have fallen ill due to privacy concerns, her staff said.
"It's about talking about the product. It's a fantastic product. We have to make sure that Albertans and Canadians understand that this is a product they can have confidence in," Ms. Redford said at the ranch. She didn't mention the illnesses, but acknowledged "one particular processor that's having some regulatory challenges at the moment," and hopes the plant reopens "as soon as possible."
The problems were first noted at XL Foods in Brooks, Alta., on Sept. 3 by American officials during a border stop. Routine Canadian Food Inspection Agency tests picked up a problem the next day, which was originally thought to be an isolated case. More positive tests popped up Sept. 12, and the border was closed. A recall was issued Sept. 16, but the plant was allowed to keep operating after agreeing to make changes, particularly in "trend analysis" of its randomized testing. When the changes weren't made fast enough, the CFIA shut it down on Sept. 27 – presumably, the "regulatory challenges" Ms. Redford referred to.
The CFIA has faced questions about a slow response, and has said it acted as quickly as possible.
XL Foods is the country's largest Canadian-owned slaughterhouse, and processes up to 4,000 head of cattle per day. With facilities in Alberta and Nebraska, it's a subsidiary of the privately held, Edmonton-based Nilsson Bros. Inc. The Brooks plant was bought from U.S. giant Tyson Foods in 2008 for $107-million. It has 2,200 employees, nearly all of whom are out of work until the plant is allowed to resume production.
By Sunday, the recall had extended to more than 1,100 products at 50 retailers, including Costco, Walmart, Safeway, Loblaws and Sobeys, spread across every province and territory, except Nunavut, as well as 41 American states and Puerto Rico. This is a sign, critics say, of the risks of a consolidating industry, where one problem at a mega-plant can spread quickly across the continent.
At first, the recalls were for ground beef processed on one of five days. The latest recalls have been for other beef, such as steak, due to the "potential risk of cross contamination," XL Foods said. "While the risk is very low, we will always act in the best interest of our consumers," the company said in a recorded message.
David Chalack, a veterinarian and chair of the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency, said he hopes the XL Foods problem doesn't shake confidence in the industry.
"I continue to eat meat. I'm not concerned. Certainly no one wants to hear the stories of a young girl, four years old, in kidney failure," Dr. Chalack said, adding ranchers are "doing everything at the producer end to have healthy cattle that are free of disease."
Of the nine cases being investigated by authorities, four have been definitively linked to the outbreak: they ate steaks from an Edmonton Costco that had passed through the XL Foods plant, the CFIA says. The other five, including the Calgary girl, are undergoing lab testing, but have yet to show 100 per cent correlation.
To do so, health officials need a stool sample, from which they need to grow bacteria. It can take a week or more, and there's no guarantee the source of the sickness will be found.
"By the time the child is that far along in the illness, and the parents take the child to the hospital, it's not always possible to isolate the bacteria and grow the bacteria in the stool sample," said Glen Armstrong, head of the University of Calgary's Department of Microbiology, Immunology & Infectious Diseases.
In a typical year, Alberta gets 60 to 80 E. coli cases, which can be linked to produce, meat, water or other food.
"They happen and quite often can't be linked back to anything," said Lynn McMullen, a University of Alberta professor of food microbiology.
It's impossible to say whether there will be more illnesses – some of the recalled products were on shelves as recently as Sept. 28, and symptoms can take a week to appear.
"I would hope we're over the worst of it," Ms. McMullen said.
By Sunday, at least 1,114 beef products had been recalled from 50 Canadian retailers.
The recall is linked to one plant, XL Foods, in Brooks, Alta. It's one of Canada's biggest plants, with 2,200 staff. The CFIA has 46 inspectors and veterinarians permanently assigned to the facility.
Nine cases of illness are being investigated, including four that have been confirmed to be linked to the recall. There have been no cases reported outside Alberta.
Beef that may be contaminated has spread widely throughout the food system, including institutions such as hospitals. Everyone is urged to dispose, return, or ensure meat is fully cooked to 71 degrees Celsius. "The recall information applies in an equal manner to all groups," the CFIA says.
E. coli is a food-borne illness (not just meat) killed by heat. Symptoms include an upset stomach and diarrhea. It can occasionally lead to kidney failure or death, especially in vulnerable groups such as the young or old. E. coli bacteria is killed by heat. Cooking beef thoroughly, using a thermometer to ensure it reaches 71 degrees Celsius, is the best way to protect against infection.
E. coli bacteria is killed by heat. Cooking beef thoroughly, using a thermometer and ensuring it reaches 71 Celsius, is the best way to protect against infection.
E. coli cases happen regularly across Canada. Alberta averages between 60 and 80 cases each year.
The Americans noticed a problem first, on Sept. 3, and American tests once again raised the alarm on Sept. 12. Canadian officials say they noticed it on their own on Sept. 4, and federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz has stood by his agency's food safety system.
- Josh Wingrove