Veteran cattleman George Graham has a common-sense solution for how to prevent a repeat of an E. coli outbreak and extensive product recall in the fall that made 18 people sick, threw thousands out of work and smeared the Canadian beef brand.
Officials who regulate and work in the industry must simply do their jobs properly.
"We have an extremely good product and we have a very good food-safety program compared to other places around the world," Graham said from his feedlot in southern Alberta where his family has raised cattle since 1918.
"We just need to be more vigilant that the job is getting done."
The manure hit the fan in early September when U.S. food inspectors found E. coli bacteria in a shipment of beef from the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta.
The U.S. quickly closed its border to beef from the plant, which slaughters up to 40 per cent of Canada's cattle. Canadian officials then shut the plant down and sent 2,200 workers home.
In the weeks that followed, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency pulled back more than 2,000 products across the country involving millions of kilograms of beef — the largest meat recall in Canada's history.
American food safety regulators announced a similar recall by XL Foods of its products in more than 30 states.
In the end, there were 18 confirmed cases of people getting sick in Canada from a specific and potentially deadly strain of E. coli linked to the XL Foods beef.
Canadian producers lost money as cattle prices fell and ranchers had to pay more to ship their cattle to other plants.
Millions of kilograms of beef from prime Canadian cattle was dumped in landfills or rendered into non-food products.
The company that once boasted of being the largest Canadian-owned beef plant turned over management of the Brooks plant to JBS USA, an affiliate of Brazil-based JBS SA, which has an option to buy the facility and other XL Foods holdings.
Professor Rick Holley, a University of Manitoba food safety expert, said there is no excuse for the sanitation problems that led to the closure of the Brooks plant.
He said Canada is respected around the world for its progressive food safety rules. The problem, he suggested, is that those rules are not as vigorously enforced as they should be.
How could 40 inspectors and six veterinarians at the XL plant somehow miss the problems?
"We see too much pressure being put on inspection staff to complete reports," said Holley, who added that some inspectors need more training to effectively do their jobs.
"They just have to get better at the proactive end of things, a lot better."
The responsibility for food safety also rests with company owners. Holley said managers and supervisors must set clear operating standards for hygiene and strictly enforce them.
Part of that responsibility is to ensure that workers, who are often immigrants who speak English as a second language, are fully trained to understand what is expected of them.
Workers must also feel comfortable about being able to speak up if they have concerns.
Holley said food safety in meat plants is everyone's concern, but ultimately it is the federal food inspection staff that set the tone.
"There is a constant requirement for regulatory oversight, but that regulatory oversight must be viewed by the plant's managers and staff as competent," he said.
"When the activity doesn't appear to be competent, then you end up with people taking shortcuts, and outcomes such as we have seen at XL Foods."
How much damage did the recall and E. coli outbreak cause Canada's beef industry, which is centred in Alberta, but includes cattle producers in every province? No one is quite sure.
Most of the beef that Canadians eat — almost 80 per cent — comes from cattle that are Canadian-born, bred and processed. Canada produces twice the amount of beef that it consumes. The rest is exported, mainly to the United States.
The slogan of the industry's marketing arm, Canada Beef Inc., is "Quality That Inspires Confidence."
Ron Glaser, a Canada Beef vice-president, said it appears that most consumers haven't stopped eating beef. But shoppers are asking more questions about the beef they are buying.
"They want to know what plant it is from," he said from Calgary. "They are going to want to know, basically, is it safe?"
To reassure consumers, the industry is developing an information campaign that it is expected to roll out in the new year, Glaser said.
It is likely to include information on how producers take care in raising cattle and an assurance that Canada has an extremely safe food system.
The XL Foods fiasco will be cast as an exception, not the rule.
"It is unfortunate that there are occasionally problems like this," Glaser said. "It is unfortunate that this will potentially tarnish a broader industry."
On Oct. 29, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency cleared the Brooks plant to resume slaughtering cattle and packaging beef. Products have since been allowed to be shipped again to retailers. XL Foods has also been given permission to resume exports to the United States.
Despite a seeming return to normalcy, some ranchers warn it will take time for the industry to recover.
"Are we making ends meet? Just barely, as we are still playing catch-up for the years that we did not get a decent price for our calves during the BSE years and we had to use all our resources to keep ranching," said Eileen Juhasz, who has 150 head on her ranch south of Lethbridge.
The CFIA has said there was no single factor that caused the E. coli outbreak in Brooks. Problems included deficiencies in bacteria control, sanitation and record-keeping.
The federal government has promised a complete review of what happened and to make its final report public, including possible recommendations to improve food safety.
"Certainly we take this to heart and don't want to see these kind of issues happen, but we'll never apologize for the size and the scope of the recall. If that's what's required, that's what we'll do," Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz told The Canadian Press.
The federal government is also putting its faith in JBS USA, the company that's now managing the Brooks plant.
"JBS is a tremendous corporate partner," Ritz said. "They brought an era of food culture to that plant that we haven't seen for quite some time so we look forward to them and moving on to the future."
Cattleman George Graham is also bullish on JBS and hopes the international food giant will buy the XL Foods plant.
He said business at his South Slope Feeders feedlot outside of Brooks is picking up. He recalled how the industry bounced back from the financial upheaval caused by the mad cow disease scare a decade ago.
"We have seen a lot of hurdles thrown at us the last 10 years and we've managed to survive some pretty big ones," he said. "I don't think this is going to be any different."
— With files from Bill Graveland in Calgary
Cows are slaughtered at XL Foods Inc. plant in Brooks, Alta. Beef slaughtered that day will later be recalled.
August 24, 27, 28 & 29
Beef processed at the Brooks facility on these days is later recalled.
Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is alerted by U.S. officials that beef from the Brooks plant has tested positive for E. coli bacteria. An investigation begins.
Four consumers who bought Kirkland Signature brand strip loin grilling steaks from Edmonton Costco at 13650 50th St. N.E. later become ill.
A Calgary girl, 4, is hospitalized for symptoms caused by E. coli bacteria.
September 11 & 12
Four in Edmonton who ate Kirkland strip loin steak seek medical for symptoms of E. coli poisoning. Two went to hospital but all four are recovering.
The CFIA issues their first warning, telling people not to eat, sell or serve 26 ground beef/ground-beef products sold at several major stores because they “may be contaminated with E. coli.” Although XL Foods Inc. voluntarily issued the recall, no reported illnesses have been linked to this recall.
55 more ground beef and ground-beef products are added to the list of products recalled across Canada. All were manufactured at the XL plant in Brooks, Alta.
Fourteen more products are added to the recall list.
XL Foods releases a statement saying XL Foods prides itself on providing safe and high quality beef products. Meanwhile, the recall list by the CFIA grows to add 75 more items.
The United States Food Safety and Inspection Service issues a public-health alert, while the CFIA adds another 37 products to the recall.
Another 47 products are added to the recall.
Another 10 products are added to the recall.
An in-depth review uncovers “several deficiencies” during an investigation into the Brooks facility.
- 60 products to the Canadian recall. - U.S. recalls products in California, Oregon, Michigan, Nebraska, Utah, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. - Alberta Health Services (AHS) investigate a total of eight E. coli cases - four in Edmonton, three in Calgary and one in central Alberta. The tests confirm Edmonton patients were infected by E. coli-tainted steaks bought at Costco. The CFIA is notified about the test results.
- The CFIA recalls Kirkland steaks packaged and sold September 4-7 from the Edmonton Costco. - It is confirmed the steaks were processed by XL Foods Inc. in Brooks. - Costco stores are asked by top doctors to stop using a meat-tenderizing machine that could potentially move E. coli bacteria from the surface of the meat to the centre. - Ten states are now affected by the The United States Food Safety and Inspection Service recall.
AHS investigates a fourth case of E. coli in Calgary. AHS is investigating what caused E. coli poisoning in the Calgary patient and the central Alberta patient.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency suspends the operating licence of XL Foods' Brooks plant.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency suspends the operating licence of XL Foods' Brooks plant
There was no initial reason to order a public recall or shut down the XL Foods facility in Brooks, say officials from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, defending their delay in alerting the public.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency comes under fire. Alberta Premier Alison Redford and NDP MP Linda Duncan question the delay in alert.
The Canadian Cattlemen's Association says it's possible federal regulators will clear the XL Foods beef plant to resume operations by next week but the real challenge will be getting U.S. to accept beef exports from the plant again.
The beef recall expanded to Co-Op, Metro and Walmart stores in Canada.
The beef recall gets expanded to include dozens of cuts of meat.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford says Alberta beef is safe and that the province breeds a high quality product with the highest standards possible.
The Liberals and the NDP gang up on the Conservative government over the safety of Canada's meat supply.
Beef recall is expanded again. This time to include dozens of additional products including roasts and sausages.
The XL Foods beef recall gets expanded to B.C. More than 20 B.C. retail chains pull beef products from their shelves as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency continues to expand the recall from the plant.
The XL foods beef recall becomes the biggest beef recall in Canadian history.
XL Foods finally breaks silence, issuing a press release in which they took responsibility for the circumstances that led to the recalls. Not much was made available in terms of explanation or courses of action. Meanwhile, the recall is expanded yet again.
Workers at the XL plant in Brooks speak out and what they have to say is not pretty. They describe high output demands, low staffing levels of disgusting hygiene issues. Meanwhile, the CFIA says the plant failed to maintain or update it's E. coli plan.
Five new E. coli cases are linked to the tainted meat. Recall expands again.
The beef recall, the largest in Canadian history, got much bigger with meats being pulled off shelves in Hong Kong.
Federal inspectors begin a detailed assessment of the Brooks XL Foods Plant. The investigation would last weeks.
This little baby starts making its rounds... Meanwhile, the union at the plant said it was a case of greed over health that led to the massive recall and claim the plant is nowhere near safe.
A partial reopening of the plant is considered and Alberta Premier Alison Redford rejects calls for a provincial inquiry into the recall.
The U.S. announces it will audit the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, as Quebec E. coli cases are linked to the Alberta plant and new E. coli cases are confirmed in B.C.
2,000 workers at the XL Foods plant in Brooks are temporarily laid off.
800 of the 2,000 workers temporarily laid off the day before are recalled so that CFIA can continue its investigation in the plant.
JBS USA announce they're taking over the management of the plant and reserve the option to purchase XL Foods. Earlier that day, workers at the plant were laid off again, as the recall of beef products expands yet again.
Also on the 17th, B.C. residents announce their intent to sue XL Foods over E. coli-tainted meat, as Brooks declares itself in a state of crisis due to the thousands of workers, many of them of foreign origin and of modest means, are left without income and in need of services.
JBS USA announces it intends to work with the union and the community to fix the conditions in the plant that led to the massive beef recalls.
The CFIA announces that some of the meat stored in warehouses after the recalls may end up on your dinner table once the recalls end. Meanwhile, remaining carcasses at the plant test negative for E. coli.
Tons of meant from the XL Foods plant is tossed into Alberta landfills.
Former XL Foods manager says CFIA inspectors require better training. Later that afternoon, it is announced that all workers would return to the plant on Oct. 29 for further training and to partially reopen the beleaguered plant.
JBS CEO Bill Rupp addressed the Brooks plant, the community and the media and vowed that safety at the plant would be the number one priority, adding the culture at the plant would change for the better.
Production at the XL Foods plant in Brooks resumes for the first time since E. Coli tainted meat from the plant resulted in the largest Canadian beef recall in history.
R-CALF, a U.S. ranchers lobby group, asks U.S. courts to block the possible sale of the Brools XL Foods plant to JBS USA, which is at the time managing the plant but which has reserved the option to buy the Alberta facility, as well as some U.S. plants. (Getty)
Another case of E. coli is linked to the XL Foods Inc. plant in Alberta. The Public Health Agency of Canada says the case was in Quebec, bringing the total number of confirmed cases across the country to 17.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency discloses that its staff observed a number of problems at XL Foods the previous week, as the plant worked to get back to normal operations. They included meat areas that weren't adequately cleaned and water sanitizer that wasn't maintained at a high enough temperature.
The total number of e-coli cases across the country linked to the XL Foods Brooks plant climbs to 18. The Public Health Agency of Canada said the new case is in Alberta.