03/20/2012 03:12 EDT | Updated 05/19/2012 05:12 EDT

Beef E.coli Recall In Canada Expands to 135 Products

Think twice before you barbecue that burger.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is urging the public to check all ground beef products in their freezers as a country-wide recall due to possible E.coli contamination affects a growing number of brands.

The agency says all the products — most of them frozen beef burgers — can be identified by the establishment number 761 and were produced between July 1, 2011 and Feb. 15, 2012.

"Our message to consumers is if you have these products in your freezers, do not consume them," CFIA food safety and recall specialist Garfield Balsom said Tuesday.

The recall, which was originally announced a number of weeks ago, now covers some 135 different beef products distributed under various brand names. They include President's Choice, Best Value, Calgary Stampede, Country Morning Gold, Exclusive Selections, Grillhouse, Irresistibles, Keg, Licks and Maple Lodge Farms.

The CFIA investigation into the tainted beef was sparked when a person in Alberta complained about contracting E.coli after consuming one of the affected products.

Balsom said the beef came from a Saskatoon hamburger plant operated by New Food Classics. The agency used the manufacturer's establishment number as an identifier because it was printed on all recalled products.

"The brand New Food Classics doesn't appear on a lot of products but the establishment number does," he said.

New Food Classics went into receivership last month about one week after the CFIA began its investigation into the E.coli complaint on Feb. 15, and a few days after the agency issued its first recall of hamburger products produced at the plant.

The closure of the company's plants in Saskatoon and St. Catharines, Ont., has thrown about 250 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union out of work.

In Nov. 5, 2010, the Ontario government gave New Food Classics a $1,000,000 grant to move a hamburger manufacturing facility from Calgary to St. Catharines to create jobs and bolster the economy.

At the time the company claimed to produce about half of all frozen hamburgers sold in Canadian grocery stores.

Ontario Agriculture spokesman Mark Cripps said Tuesday the province does not expect to get any of that money back.

"They met the terms of their contract, and all those objectives were met," Cripps said from Toronto. "We have no intention of trying to get it back."

EdgeStone Capital Partners, the owner of the company, referred questions about New Food Classics to FTI, the firm handling the receivership. FTI officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Norm Neault, president of the UFCW local in Saskatoon, said New Food Classics had been in financial trouble, but had new investors lined up in February. He said it's not clear what role, if any, the E.coli investigation and the initial product recall had on the decision to shut the company down.

"I recall having someone tell me about it around (Feb.) 17 or 18, and my thought was 'if they are having a hard time finding a buyer before, what is it going to be like now?' It was like a perfect storm," he said.

"I can't say if it had any bearing on it, but it sure wasn't going to make it any easier."

The CFIA's investigation is ongoing and the agency will be adding products to a list on its website as they are identified.

"Our main focus is to first of all identify any product that may be of risk to consumers and then try to identify root cause so that we can identify the issue and make sure it doesn't re-occur," Balsom said.

"That investigation into the second phase is continuing at this point."

The products that may be contaminated were distributed nationally to retail stores, restaurants and institutions such as hospitals.

"The unsettling thing here is that we've got almost an equal number of products that have gone to retail stores and food services," said food safety expert Rick Holley, who teaches at the University of Manitoba.

Holley explains that animals often carry E.coli bacteria which may find its way into processed and packaged products if meat isn't treated appropriately at facilities.

Food contaminated with E.coli may not look or smell spoiled but can cause serious and potentially life-threatening illnesses. Symptoms include severe abdominal pain and bloody diarrhoea.

Symptoms usually start within three to four days but can occur up to 10 days later and last from five to 10 days.

The CFIA website says cooking food to a safe internal temperature helps protect against E.coli, but in the case of the current recall, the agency and retailers are advising the public not to consume the identified products altogether.

A person who may have consumed one of the affected products need not be overly worried however, as long as the beef was cooked to appropriate temperatures — usually between 71 to 74 degrees C, said Holley.

The thing to watch out for is cross-contamination.

"The organism is not particularly resistant to high temperature, so normal cooking practice will eliminate it," he said.

"Just watch out what you do with this product when you're in the kitchen: what does it come in contact with? Where are the knives, the plates that it's come into contact with?"

The current recall shines the spotlight on the need for more food testing and inspection, said Holley, adding that Canadians shouldn't take the safety of what they eat for granted.

"We should be making sure that the systems we have always work properly and the records being kept are accurate, so that we know when a problem occurs and we can take some action before we have to do a recall."

The recalled products may have a best before date from Jan. 1, 2012 up to and including Feb. 15, 2013 and a production code with a format of 11 JL 01 up to and including 12 FE 15.

The CFIA is working with retailers and distributors to recall the identified products from the marketplace and is monitoring the effectiveness of the recall.

Some retailers, including Loblaw Companies, are offering refunds to customers who return the designated products, even if they don't have original receipts, to their stores.

A list of the recalled beef products can be found at the CFIA website.

—With files from John Cotter in Edmonton

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version misspelled St. Catharines.