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Letter from the Editor: It was time to draw the line

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News involves various facts around certain events put into some context.

Food Safety News usually does not have a problem putting these factors together for our readers, but I am feeling we fell a bit short in the last week involving all those beef and veal recalls out of Canada involving Toronto’s Riding-Regency Meat Packers Ltd.

It’s unusual for either the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) or USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) to string us along with one expanded recall after another and then just say something more might occur because investigators are investigating.  Usually,  these events are tidier.    They are connected to an outbreak or some other fast-moving development.

The list of recalled raw beef and veal products this time just continues to grow. There is no shortage of facts, but not enough perspective.

It took me until the end of the week, however, to actually put CFIA’s action into context.   CFIA decided to draw the line when it suspended the Riding-Regency license over E. coli O157: H7 contamination. We reported on the license suspension after it occurred on Sept. 17. Practically speaking, it means CFIA is taking everything off the table it finds on the wrong side of that line. And FSIS issued a public health warning over what’s happening.

Putting it into context, the food safety strategy being employed by CFIA has been used by others. Dr. Richard Raymond, the USDA undersecretary for food safety in 2008 when the now-defunct Westland/Hallmark Meat was discovered using some of the most egregious animal abuse practices ever, drew a hard line that forced the largest meat recall in American history. Raymond was successful in drawing his line, even added cooked products to the 143.3 million pound recall. 

A decade earlier, USDA drew a line on Supreme Beef for its miserable amount of Salmonella contamination. This time, however, Supreme Beef sued USDA in federal court and won.   The men in black robes said USDA could not suspend Supreme’s operations because Salmonella has not been declared an adulterant in meat like E. coli. 

Interestingly, USDA was buying massive amounts of beef from both Westland/Hallmark and Supreme at the times those incidents occurred.

For consumers, this line drawing strategy is a good thing. The protestations by the Riding-Regency owners notwithstanding, food safety is put at risk when the paperwork is so messed up no one can tell up from down. When you are “management,” you are supposed to be able to manage. When your 300 employees are sent home, it’s your fault and your responsibility. And until we see the full investigative report from CFIA, we don’t know if the line drawn only over some poor record keeping.

E. coli O157: H7 was responsible for the largest beef recall in Canada’s history involving the XL Foods plant in Brooks, AL in 2012.  And when it got into the water supply of Walderton, ON in 2000, the E. coli strain sickened 2,000, resulting in six deaths.

“CFIA identified a problem in a plant and instituted a recall before anyone got sick. If you make it through this without anyone getting sick that’s a pat on the back for the Canadian system,” Jennifer Ronholm told The Canadian Press.

She is an assistant professor of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at McGill University, “I wouldn’t want E. coli O157: H7 contaminated product in my freezer, fridge, kitchen or oven and I would not recommend that anyone knowingly handle, store, eat, or serve affected meat regardless of how it is cooked,” Ronholm said. “Addressing contamination fears is a complex and time-consuming operation, but this case shows that “the system is working.”

Drawing the line works, especially when drawing the line is overdue.

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