VERNON, B.C. - B.C. is taking over inspection services from the federal government at about 60 slaughterhouses that process meat for the retail market.
As of Jan. 1, 2014, the federal government will no longer subsidize Canadian Food Inspection Agency employees at provincially licensed slaughterhouses, so the province is developing its own system, Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick said Friday.
Until last year, only B.C., Manitoba and Saskatchewan employed federal inspectors, and Letnick said the subsidy was costing Ottawa about $4 million to $4.5 million annually on the West Coast alone.
"So I imagine with them reviewing their budgets, and you know there's only one taxpayer, ... they thought this was probably appropriate for the provincial government to pay for its own abattoir system," he said.
The province's new system will require B.C. outlets that slaughter and process meat for retail outlets to develop written food-safety procedures that address meat safety, facility hygiene and animal health and welfare.
The new system will also create an audit program, train inspectors to provincial standards and maintain third-party government inspection and government stamps on products.
But the federal agency will continue to monitor the 11 federally registered slaughterhouses in the province.
Letnick said the provincial government will hire about 43 people for the new program and it has already started looking for managers.
There will be no direct transfers from the federal program, although the government is encouraging qualified employees to apply, he said.
Letnick said the system was developed following discussions with ranchers, slaughterhouse operators and local governments, and it will cost about $6.7 million to develop and $5.6 million to run annually.
"We took no shortcuts on this," he said. "Consumer safety and confidence in our meat products are paramount, and we wanted to make sure we did it right. So we consulted extensively with people on many different aspects of it."
Taken into consideration, too, was an E.coli contamination in beef at the XL Foods plant in Alberta last fall that sickened 18 people and set off a federal government review.
Letnick said the incident gave the province support to continue with the traditional system of having an inspector present during the slaughter process.
The alternative, he said, was a risk-based system where meat is monitored by video and tested but not every piece of meat is watched.
"With what happened with XL meats, that definitely gave us more support to continue with the albeit perhaps a little more expensive (system), but in the long run probably less expensive (system) if you don't have to have the recalls," he said.
The ministry is also developing a two-year pilot program in the north Okanagan that will allow five on-farm slaughterhouses, which are within two hours travel time of a provincially licensed slaughterhouse, to sell restricted amounts of meat at their gates and at temporary farmers markets.
The ministry will also allow a mobile slaughterhouse in 100 Mile House, B.C., to serve the local market, and it's talking with the retail sector to expand the domestic market for B.C. meat.
The program appears to have earned support from health officials and the industry.
Keven Boon, general manager of the BC Cattleman's Association, said the government listened to the industry and did a good job of developing a system that will satisfy consumers, producers and processors.
Mike Noullett, president of the BC Association of Abattoirs, applauded the government for working with the industry to develop a fully funded inspection system for outlets that slaughter and process meat for retail.
"The safety of meat and food products is top-of-mind for all of us, and this updated provincial meat inspection system will help to maintain and enhance the safety of British Columbia's local meat supply," added Dr. Perry Kendall, in a statement.
-- By Keven Drews in Vancouver
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While most strains of E. coli are harmless, the Public Health Agency Of Canada warns that some strains including E. coli O157: H7, can make people sick, and in serious complications can include kidney failure.
Symptoms include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting and fever that is generally less than 38.5˚C/101˚F and tend to last for five to seven days.
High risk individuals include the very young, elderly, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems.
Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which can be fatal, can develop in around 5 to 10 per cent of those who get sick from E. coli O157:H7 overall and about 15 per cent of young children and the elderly. Symptoms of HUS vary. Some people have seizures or strokes and some need blood transfusions and kidney dialysis. Others live with side effects such as permanent kidney damage.
Proper hygiene including hand washing and safe food handling and preparation practices are recommended to prevent the illness.
While E. coli is generally associated with ground meat, Alberta Health Services warns that the bacteria can also be found in foods including poultry, pork, cheese, sprouts, lettuce, yogurt, and unpasteurized milk and fruit juices and advises Albertans to take precaution.