OTTAWA — In the wake of one of the largest food recalls in Canadian history — which began when U.S. inspectors stopped a shipment of beef tainted with E. coli — the U.S. and Canadian governments face a growing backlash over plans to eliminate such secondary meat inspections.
Under the “Beyond The Border” deal announced by both countries in December, duplicate inspections will be phased out to improve the flow of meat and poultry across the border. A pilot project moving toward a streamlined inspection regimen began this week.
It was, however, just such a secondary inspection that first triggered alarm bells about beef from the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta., after inspectors with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) flagged E. coli in a shipment at a Montana border crossing on Sept. 3.
Officials with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) confirmed that they were alerted by the USDA and only found E. coli themselves when they re-tested the meat originally approved for export. But on its website, the CFIA insists it found E. coli during “routine testing” and delayed issuing a recall because XL Foods was slow to provide them with information.
Washington asked for an export ban on Sept. 13, three days before the CFIA issued the first of several product recall notices in Canada and two weeks before it revoked the plant’s operating licence for problems regarding the E. coli risk, maintenance and sanitation. More than 1,800 XL Foods products have been recalled across Canada, along with more than 1.1 million kilograms of beef exported to the United States and 20 other countries.
Critics of the Beyond the Border deal say the Alberta beef recall is proof the border inspection program is worthwhile and should not be scrapped.
“We objected from the get-go about how [the elimination of secondary meat inspection] was a stupid idea, and what’s happened with XL proves our point, ” said Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist with Food & Water Watch in Washington, D.C.
“All the allegations and contentions that [inspections] are impeding trade are nonsensical. Food safety should not be trumped by trade.”
Corbo said he does not believe Canadian inspectors can be trusted with food destined for American dinner plates, and that U.S. officials too often turn a blind eye to health violations coming from north of the border.
“There is a history of USDA looking the other way whenever they review Canada’s food safety system,” he said. “Canada seems to get a pass every time they find violations.”
Chris Waldrop, the director of the Consumer Federation of America’s Food Policy Institute, told The Huffington Post Canada it has become “glaringly obvious” in light of the XL recall that border inspections serve a valid purpose.
“There have been multiple occurrences where a check at the border has found contamination or problems that resulted in products’ being sent back to the originating plant. So that says to us that border inspection is useful and does serve a purpose and to bypass border inspections and allow plants to ship directly to a receiving plant could raise some serious problems in light of safety,” he said.
The Food Safety Coalition, an umbrella organization representing some 300 U.S. consumer groups, recently sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, urging him to stop the implementation of the Beyond the Border pilot project for fear of compromising food safety.
For now at least, the pilot project will not decrease the number of microbiological or residue spot checks performed at the border — the type that found XL’s contaminated products — and which are conducted on approximately one in 10 trucks. It will, however, eliminate product and label checks that are done on each truck entering the U.S. market.
The Canadian government has moved slowly, selecting one pork company that operates plants on both sides of the border to take part in the pilot program (it hopes to select a beef company as well). The company’s trucks will be pre-cleared by CFIA officials in Canada and unless they are notified en route, the meat will bypass a product and label check — and the hours-long wait at an inspection house on the border — to drop their loads directly at a USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) inspected plant in the U.S.
Wally Piatkowski, the operator of a meat and poultry inspection facility in Niagara Falls, N.Y., acknowledged that his livelihood is in jeopardy if border inspections are eliminated, but he insisted he does valuable work.
Pointing to photos of shipments he has taken of meat travelling next to toxic chemicals, beef with fecal matter and unpackaged ground meat spilling onto the back of a truck, he said all trucks should be inspected when they enter the United States.
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Wally Piatkowski, the operator of a border inspection facility in Niagara Falls, N.Y., addressed congressional staffers and reporters assembled in the House of Representative's Agriculture Committee hearing room in August 2012 making the case for continued border screening of meat and poultry products coming from Canada. He said the following photos were taken within the last few years.
"That was a meat shipment that came in and on the back of the truck there were caustic chemicals in steal barrels, approximately 22 of them, located on the trailer with the meat products."
"Instead of shipping in smaller boxes, like a 50 lbs box or a 60 lbs box, they bulk package product into 2,000 lbs boxes, and the product, when you debone product and cut through the meat and expose the tissue, the end of the tissue produces fluid. Eventually what you have is a 2,000 lbs box, with 2,000 lbs of meat in it and the pressure of the meat pushes down on each other and extract out some liquid. The liquid then leaks out of the plastic bags and it may get the cardboard a little bit weight and it loses its strength and you get a bulb that pops out of the box."
"The pressure gets so great that the meat pops out."
"The yellow stuff on top is more likely ingest or fecal contamination."
"When animals are slaughtered part of the slaughtering is evisceration, removing the intestines and the stomach and the internal organs, things of that nature. And during the evisceration unsanitary practices are conducted or occur that contaminate the meat products."
“Would you want meat that was cross-contaminated with chemicals? Would you want meat that was laying on the floor?,” Piatkowski said. “At the border, it is guaranteed 100 per cent that that meat is going to be destroyed or sent back to Canada and has zero chances of entering the food supply.”
Every week products are returned to Canada, Piatkowski added. He turned away 25 boxes on Sunday because they were not labelled properly, if at all, he said.
Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz refused to answer HuffPost questions about secondary border screening, including whether the plan to scrap it would be reviewed in light of the XL recall and whether Ottawa plans to add more food inspectors or strengthen testing requirements for meat destined for American consumers.
“First and foremost, Canadian consumers are always the government’s first priority when it comes to food safety,” Ritz said in a statement emailed to HuffPost. “In no way would the Beyond the Border initiative reduce food safety,” he added.
The Beyond the Border plan is not intended to reduce food safety, but it does seek to reduce the number of inspections, acknowledged CFIA vice-president of policy and programs Neil Bouwer.
Currently, meat that is processed on both sides of the border is inspected three times: at the Canadian processing plant, at the border inspection house and again at the U.S. processing plant, Bouwer said. The Canadian government, along with meat and poultry producers, wants to reduce the redundancy, though “we are not there yet,” he said.
“That’s an aspiration for the longer term, but we will do that only if we can be assured that it will not have negative impact on food safety,” Bouwer said.
Producers on the Canadian side of the border know that plans to eliminate secondary border inspections have created a public relations problem for the industry.
“We hope that logic will prevail,” said James Laws, executive director of the Canadian Meat Council.
“There will always be food safety events,” Laws said of the XL beef contamination. “We will try to minimize them over the years, for sure …”
“This latest recall it is quite serious,” he said, “but at the same time it does show ... that if something gets through for whatever reason the recall is the ultimate thing. We’re not just ignoring it.”
Food Processors of Canada president Chris Kyte said he believes the XL “catastrophe” has provided the U.S. government with an excuse to bail on the Beyond the Border plan.
“The United States is not interested in facilitating imports into the United States, and I don’t think the XL situation helped,” Kyte said. “Wouldn’t you use it as an excuse if you wanted to keep out exports?”
But Kelly Johnston, a vice president with Campbell Soup who speaks on behalf of the Canadian American Business Council, said he has full confidence that whomever is in the White House after November will continue to push the Beyond the Border plan.
“I do not detect any significant concerns by Americans over the safety of Canadian meat or poultry, or vice versa,” Johnston said in an email to HuffPost. “The goal ... is to obtain the confidence necessary that a single inspection is all that is necessary. I remain confident they will eventually reach that goal.”
FSIS spokesman Dirk Fillpot would not comment on whether the USDA has any concerns about eliminating secondary border screening after the XL incident. Fillpot said FSIS has determined that Canada has an equivalent inspection system to the U.S. and that all meat, poultry and processed egg products imported into the U.S. have to meet that standard.
“To be clear, we are not giving up our role in the inspection process and our duty to protect the American public,” he said in a statement.
— With a file from The Canadian Press
Hey, the time is good now as any. Drop by at a store that sells local and/or organic meat. Many major retail chains now supply local produce. Or stop by a farmers market. Heck, if you live in Alberta, you could walk (drive) over to the farm and really get to know where your food is coming from.
Beef From Other Plants
There are other major beef producers that thankfully have been spared from the major recalls. Purchase meat from Cargill producers in Alberta perhaps?
Maybe you could treat yourself to some bison if you're missing your medium-rare steak during the recall. Who knows, you may just come back for more!
Dare we say it... producers from around the country (and world) have safe beef for consumption. Maybe its time to look for temporary alternatives to get your steak from. Alberta beef will be back on the market soon anyway.
Beefalo burgers anyone? This could be an opportunity to give these hybrid animals a taste if you've been contemplating trying beefalo for sometime.
Other Meats Like Chicken
You love your beef and it loves you right back, but maybe you can take this opportunity to try out different foods. Now we don't mean tofu, but some butter chicken may be a refreshing addition to your plate.
Fresh halibut? Yes, please.
What you need to know about the Canada-U.S. border deal
Canada and the U.S. are each other's largest trading partners. More than $1.5-billion in goods cross the border each day. The "Action Plan on Perimeter Security and Economic Competiveness" is a road map, not a formal agreement, aimed at making trade and travel across the border easier and more efficient. <blockquote>The plan focuses on four key areas. 1. Addressing threats early 2. Trade and economic growth 3. Building on existing border enforcement programs 4. Emergency and cyber infrastructure</blockquote>
Addressing threats early
Canada and the U.S. will be making a number of changes aimed at addressing security threats as early as possible and reducing the impact on trade and travel. The two countries will: <blockquote>1. Begin tracking and recording entry and exit of travellers across the border and verifying the identity of foreigners for the purposes of immigration decision making. 2. Begin conducting joint threat assessments and sharing core information. 3. Working together on developing best practices to counter threats from violent extremists. 4. Begin aligning ground- and air-cargo security to reduce the need for re-screening. Canadian travellers will no longer have their bags screened twice when transferring flights in the United States.</blockquote>
Facilitating trade and economic growth
Canada and the U.S. will be making a number of changes aimed at facilitating trade and economic growth <blockquote>The two countries will: 1. Expand programs for low-risk travellers, such as NEXUS, to make border crossing more efficient. 2. Upgrade infrastructure at key crossings to ease congestion. 3. Begin using radio frequency identification technology to read documents automatically as vehicles approach the border. 4. Create a unified approach for preclearing goods crossing by rail, sea or road. 5. Set up a single window for companies to send required info only once. 6. Make it easier for low-value shipments to clear customs </blockquote>
Building on pre-existing border enforcement programs
Canada and the U.S. will make a number of changes to existing border enforcement programs. <blockquote>The two countries will: 1. Make Shiprider a permanent program. The Shiprider program allows U.S. and Canadian maritime law enforcement officials to operate independent of the border to help combat crime. 2. Begin testing the Shiprider model for land enforcement. This means Canadian officials may work on the U.S. side of the border and vice versa. 3. Begin using voice-over-Internet technology so law enforcement officials can communicate across the border with greater ease. </blockquote>
Enhancing emergency and cyber infrastructure
Canada and the U.S. will be making a number of changes aimed at enhancing emergency and cyber infrastructure. <blockquote>The two countries will: 1. Work together more closely on international cyber-security efforts. 2. Enhance joint readiness for health, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear events. 3. Jointly develop strategies for managing traffic on the border in the event of an emergency. </blockquote>
Sovereignty and human rights
Both governments are stressing the all the initiatives in the plan were developed under two principles. <blockquote>1. That each nation has the right to act independent of the other in accordance with their own laws and interests. 2. That both countries will endeavour to promote human rights, privacy, the rule of law and civil liberties.</blockquote>