What Will Be the Legacy of Canadian E.Coli Outbreak?

ANALYSIS - Canada is at present experiencing probably its worst food poisoning outbreak since the Listeria scare that hit Maple Leaf Foods in 2008, writes Chris Harris.
calendar icon 8 October 2012
clock icon 5 minute read

At present it is estimated that about 1.5 million pounds - 700 tonnes - of beef products have been recalled and the processing plant at the centre of the scare, XL Foods processing factory in Brooks Alberta is still closed.

And according to the Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz is likely to remain closed for some time until he receives a written assurance from the head of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency that everything is safe.

Again, this week, he repeated the pledge following reports that limited production was restarting at the plant - now known by its establishment number - Establishment 38.

While the company, food safety and cattle organisations are standing together to try to reassure consumers that everything is being done to reduce the risk and to limit the damage both to consumer health and to the industry, if past experience of food scares is anything to go by, serious damage has already been done.

XL Foods assurances that it is "committed to producing high quality beef products and the safety of our consumers is our number one priority" might not be enough.

The company has added: "We took the precautionary measure of voluntarily recalling certain production periods of beef products from our wholesale and retail customers that may have been contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

"We will continue to act in the best interests of consumers by working cooperatively with the CFIA to ensure the completion of the recall, assist in the ongoing investigation and implement enhanced food safety protocols."

In the Maple Leaf Listeria outbreak, in August 2008, it was estimated that just two months after the start of the scare, the company had lost around $30 million.

The outbreak caused 21 deaths attributed to L. monocytogenes found in one of Maple Leaf's processing plants and 234 products were recalled, damaging the organisation's reputation as well as market share as other competing products quickly filled the void.

On the positive side, the outbreak led to Maple Leaf developing its own code of practice The Maple Leaf Foods Culture, which has helped the company re-establish its reputation and rebuild consumer confidence.

However, for XL Foods the damage has spread beyond Canada and into the US.

During the present outbreak, the US Food Safety and Inspection Service did not pull its punches when it issued the warning to consumers: "FSIS has reason to believe, based on information provided by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), that beef from cattle slaughtered during the period associated with the recall was produced under insanitary conditions that resulted in a high event period (a period when the trim from carcasses exhibited an unusually high frequency of positive findings for the possible presence of E. coli O157:H7). Therefore, all products produced on the affected dates are considered adulterated and must be either destroyed or verified as having received a full lethality treatment.

"CFIA is overseeing the effectiveness of the recall in Canada and FSIS is overseeing the effectiveness in the United States. FSIS continues to verify that all receivers of affected beef from the Canadian-initiated recall have been notified and have removed product from commerce, and will take appropriate action if prohibited activity is found. FSIS will update the retail consignee list as FSIS verifies information received during the recall effectiveness verification process."

Much of this concern comes from the US food safety authority's own experience in dealing with E.coli outbreaks.

In 1993, hundreds of people became ill and four people died because of E.coli 0157 that was found to have come from 73 Jack in the Box restaurants were ultimately identified as part of the outbreak and recall. A trace-back was conducted, and five slaughter plants in the United States and one in Canada were identified as the likely sources of beef.

Jack in the Box reported that in the 18 months following the outbreak the company lost approximately $160 million. It faced hundreds of lawsuits from ill customers, and stockholders filed suit against the company for court costs and lost sales due to adverse publicity.

Lawyers who handled most of the litigation said it resulted in individual and class-action settlements amounting to more than $50 million - the largest payments ever involving food-borne illness.

In the current XL Foods case, officials in Alberta have confirmed 10 cases of E. coli, four of them linked to meat from the XL Foods plant. There were also 13 E. Coli cases in Saskatchewan in September, compared to the norm of zero to four cases a month, but authorities are still investigating whether any are linked to the recalled beef.

What the ultimate cost to the company will be is yet to be seen but past cases set out a rough ride ahead.

However, the industry could also learn and should learn from these cases and whether this one will have any effect on biosecurity regulations and controls will have to be seen.

One measure in which interest could become more heightened could be the use of a cattle vaccine to reduce incidence of E.coli.

The vaccine, which was developed in Canada, has been licensed for four years, but the uptake has been limited.

Rick Culbert, president of the developers of the vaccine, Bioniche Life Sciences, said that the producers, who tend to use the product, tend to be part of an integrated operation that raise their own cattle, process their own cattle and sell their own beef.

"In that system, it is easy for the marketing person (brand manager) to make the decision to add a further risk reduction step," he said.

"What is so challenging to overcome is that the normal market drivers (i.e. ill cattle or poor performing cattle) that would normally stimulate interest in vaccination do not exist.

"While it is very common for cattle to carry this serious human pathogen, they do not exhibit any symptoms and appear totally healthy.

"With that in mind, perhaps we should not be surprised that more consumers contact us than do producers.

"It could be said that this vaccine provides more added value for the consumer than the producer, however I would argue that the reality is, this is a great opportunity for producer groups, processors and retailers to align for the benefit of their entire industry."

He added: "The produce industry has also been hard hit by these bacteria, even though it originates in cattle. We are confident that measures to reducing shedding by cattle, will ultimately become routine practice because the consumer will insist on it."

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