E. coli tests not required for B.C. meat plant

A B.C. meat processing plant that covered up lab results revealing a sample of its product was contaminated with a deadly E. coli strain will not have to test for the bacteria now that it's provincially regulated.

Pitt Meadows Meats Ltd. said it made a business decision to abandon its federal licence because it incurs higher costs than are necessary because the company doesn't export.

Regulations require federally licensed plants to report positive findings of E. coli O157 strain to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

But testing for E. coli 0157 isn't mandatory in a provincially regulated plant.

Joseph Beres, inspection manager for the Canada Food Inspection Agency, said federal and provincial plants are committed to the same health and sanitation standards and use the same inspectors. But he said the presence of the deadly bacteria might only be discovered if people become sick.

Ritinder Harry, a spokesman for the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, said that provincial meat processing facilities are not required to regularly test for pathogens because "the likelihood of finding a contaminated sample is very low."

"In fact, sampling can never be 100 per cent, and a negative test does not guarantee that E. coli or other disease-causing organisms are not present in another portion of the meat," Harry said.

Harry said the best way to eliminate risk of being infected is to follow basic food safety rules, including using a thermometer to ensure the meat is properly cooked, avoiding cross contamination with raw meat or raw meat juices in the kitchen, and promptly refrigerating meat regardless of whether it is cooked or uncooked.

The coverup of the discovery of the deadly E. coli strain came to light when a Pitt Meadows employee who oversaw the plant's quality assurance contacted CBC News and said company officials told him to keep quiet about the positive test result obtained on Sept. 9.

Plant officials said they didn't report the test results because they suspected the whistleblower was trying to sabotage the plant and questioned his general sampling procedures.

Officials also say later tests were negative for E. coli, suggesting the public was never in danger. No illnesses have been reported as a result of the meat products.

Following the E. coli tests, plant officials said they internally recalled the products and destroyed 61 cases, but acknowledge they should've alerted the federal agency.

CFIA closed the plant for a month of inspections and testing, reopening it on Dec. 6. Before it reopened, Pitt Meadows officials say they took more than 900 samples of meat products, both fresh and frozen. All test results came back negative.