I love beef. Burgers, steaks, roasts, tacos and even meatloaf. As an Albertan, I can proudly say I eat some of the finest beef in the entire world. My dad has been a Red Seal Chef for close to 40 years, and I'm not too shabby in a kitchen myself. So did we feel bad when we had throw out a ton of beef we bought on sale from Wal-Mart, because it might be contaminated by E.Coli? Yes we did.
Over the last several weeks, the largest beef recall in Canadian history has been underway thanks to a company called XL Foods. According the the data released by Health Canada, the Brooks, Alta. plant of XL Foods was responsible for sending out thousands of pounds of beef contaminated by the E.Coli bacterium. To date, dozens of people in Canada and the U.S have been made sick from eating the beef provided by XL to retailers like Wal-Mart, Loblaws, a few Sobey's locations, and several restaurants and catering companies in both countries. But before we dive into that issue, lets talk some science first.
E. Coli, or Pathogenic Escherichia coli is a common bacteria found in most warm blooded animals, including humans. Most strains of the bacteria are completely harmless, and are actually beneficial in the digestive system. It's a few strands of this bacteria that causes food poisoning and sickness.
Now as a bacteria, E.Coli is not airborne. It's also not a "virus" that "infects" people, as commonly passed off by the media. Its passed on through consumption of contaminated materials, like water or beef. Now how, in a food processing plant like XL Foods, does beef get contaminated? Unsanitary conditions. Trim, blood and entrails all touching and cross contaminating in an area with little quality control. Which brings us to the next issue, XL Foods and the company practices.
In the industry, I can personally tell you that XL Foods has a bad reputation for having cheap and, depending on who you talk to, sub-par-at-best products. And yet it's because of its cheap and fast nature that XL cases are a common sight in fridges and coolers across Canada. XL is responsible for almost 25% of Canada's beef exports, and as a result they have to pump out 2000 to 5000 heads of cattle a day to keep up with demand. For comparison, Centennial Meats, widely regarded as one of the best beef products you can buy, pumps about half of that number from their plants.
There is a lot of work that goes into turning Bessie into tonight's dinner. First the cow has to be slaughtered, then cut, then trimmed, then made into the different cuts of meat, trimmed again, portioned, packed, dated and shipped. The whole process of one cow takes about 5 hours combined with all the work stations. Now imagine you have to do 2000 cows in a day, and you've got eight hours to do it. Chances are, you're gonna have to skimp a bit on cleaning.
Add to the fact you hire a largely immigrant workforce with no training and no English to communicate safety standards to, locking the plant down after 8 hours with no time for clean up, and a management group that cares more about dollars than regulations, and you have this XL Foods mess.
All of this wouldn't have happened though, if not one for one simple fact. Until the recall, XL Foods was not federally inspected.
No, that's not a typo. In Canada, inspection by federal agents is VOLUNTARY. Most good chefs and stores will not buy products that don't have a fed sticker on it, but it's not a requirement. The fact is, to bring a plant up to code is quite expensive. So companies like XL, who depend on quantity and not quality, skirt the standards and pump out sub par and contaminated meat, thus ruining it for the rest of us, and doing massive damage economically to the town of Brooks, who over night went to 50% unemployment.
This has to change. Even as a conservative I agree with the voices calling for tighter regulation. The "voluntary" inspections have to end. In it's place, mandatory inspections, heavy fines, unified safety standards and a properly trained workforce.
Speaking of the workforce more generally, an effort at all levels of government should be made to limit the number of workers in any food processing plant that are not reasonably fluent in English or French, our official languages. If I cant relay proper instructions to you in my language, how can I expect you to follow the rules of the plant? It' s unsafe, it wastes time, and it causes problems like this.
As for the rest of you, if you're concerned for your health while eating beef, here's some advice from Chef Victor Doherty . First, make sure you thoroughly wash your hands with soap and warm water before touching beef. Ensure you scrub down your prep and cooking areas with the same kind of soap and water solution. When you cook your beef, whether by broil or frying or barbeque, ensure that the beef is cooked to at least medium well, with an internal temperature of at least 210c to kill off any bacteria. Also, if you don't intend to use ground beef within 24 hours of buying it, freeze it or throw it out, or it will go bad, 48 hours for steaks.