Meat inspectors at XL Foods plant told to ‘ignore’ contaminated carcasses

Matt Coutts
Daily Brew

The Alberta food processing plant at the heart of a massive E. coli scare earlier this year has restarted production after getting the go-ahead from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

But a new report has once again thrown the plant into the tumultuous debate over Canada's food safety standards, after an old memo surfaced that seems to suggest the CFIA was more concerned about the safety of products being shipped overseas than it was about food being served to Canadians.

CTV News reports that federal beef inspectors at the embattled XL Foods plant in southern Alberta were once told to turn a blind eye to contaminated beef carcasses being sold inside the country.

[ Related: Is Canada's beef safe? ]

The network cites a 2008 memo written by a CFIA supervisor that instructed inspectors give extra scrutiny to products being shipped to Japan but ignore fecal and intestinal contamination on carcasses sold to Canadians.

The memo, according to CTV, reads:

Our number 1 priority is to ensure this standard is met with Japan eligible carcasses.

Ensure that non-Japan-eligible carcasses are not inspected for spinal cord/dura-mater, OCD (other carcass defects) and minor ingesta. Ignore them.

The sound you are hearing are thousands of heads exploding over the idea that Canada's food inspection agency would place a clear priority on exports over foods being fed to Canadians.

That is not to say it should be the opposite but... the same? How about the same?

The report suggests that the reason the supervisors ordered inspectors ignore the visible contamination was because it was meant to be washed off later in the production line. An anonymous CFIA agent told the network that visible contamination needs to be trimmed off, not sprayed away.

Fun fact about that memo: It was sent in 2008 and re-issued in 2010 and 2011.

Canadians are all too familiar with the work of that Alberta XL Foods plant - which was shut down and cited over a massive E. coli crisis that began in September.

The CFIA says it is the fourth-most stringent food safety system in the world, tied with the U.S., and was ranked the best for the clarity and stability of its regulations.

It is currently investigating another Alberta meat packer's operation after traces of listeria were found on a worker's sleeve, prompting the recall of two brands of ham.

Edmonton-based Capital Packers gave the agency wrong information about the product, according to the Edmonton Journal. The CFIA has suspended the company's operating licence while it comes up better food-safety measures.

If it sounds to you like there is an echo in the chamber, you are not alone.

Yahoo! Canada News reported on the frequency of tainted food reports last week, saying seven recalls were announced in November and 12 others were reported in October.

CFIA stats show that the number of recalls has risen from 246 in 2005-06 to 301 in 2011-12.

The Canadian government, meantime, has passed a bill meant to modernize and consolidate Canada's food inspection system and establish tougher penalties for those who shirk its safety standards.

[ Related: Food safety bill passes with unanimous vote in House ]

We'll have to wait to see how the new rules will affect safety recalls. Perhaps more issues will be caught, or perhaps more issues will be addressed before they need to be caught.

A new CFIA memo was issued to inspectors at the XL Foods plant two weeks ago, which had removed the order to ignore the contamination and replaced it with an order to halt the production line until the issue was dealt with.

This new order directive, again, comes after an E. coli outbreak at the plant prompted the largest meat recall in Canadian history.

There's a connection there that even a CFIA memo can't ask us to ignore.