Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Why you don't put all your eggs in one basket - E. coli and XL Foods

Campbell Farm abattoir - CFIA inspected
      A few days ago I went to Saturna Island to pick up one of my lambs that was being processed at Campbell Farm's abattoir. The lamb was for a special local food event, a Farms Dinner at Poets Cove Resort on Pender Island, profiling many of Pender Islands' farms and food producers. While I was there, I picked up three boxes of beef from Campbell farm, labelled with the beef's name “Flippers”. I know that Flippers had to just walk down the valley to be slaughtered in a clean, calm environment. I know the CFIA inspector was on site to supervise each step of the process; first, to ensure the animal was healthy, second, to ensure that it was killed humanely. The inspector would then focus on the cleanliness of the entire operation and process, from the hide removal, to the removal of the internal organs, the inspection of the internal organs, and a close visual inspection of the carcass with a final wash using clean water, tested for purity. Only then does the inspector put the government stamp on the meat, just before it is put into the cooler. After chilling for several days, the meat would be cut and wrapped and ready to prepare.
      Jacques Campbell and I talked about the importance of a local food system like this one. Small scale and local, completely traceable to the source. Each animal processed individually. An inspection system that is looking out for the health of the public.
XL Foods Inc. plant - CFIA inspected
      So what went wrong at the XL plant, and why did it go wrong? XL Foods Inc. is the largest Canadian owned and operated beef processor. One would expect that such a plant, federally inspected by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), shipping meat far and wide, would have extra scrutiny upon it. Since the identification of E. coli 0157 back in the 80's, much has been learned about the organism. It is known that many animals carry the organism. Cattle who carry the bacteria do not show any symptoms of disease, and some animals can shed huge amounts of the bacteria in their feces. It is known that the organism spreads easily from animal to animal, and feedlots with their high animal densities and high grain diets have the highest proportion of infected animals. Even so, the rate of infection within feedlot pens can vary widely. Infections come and go with animals, and most infections are temporary, lasting about four weeks. Some beef can be super-shedders, and some believe all it would take is one or two super-shedders, some sloppy slaughtering and less than perfect conditions for the meat to become infected in a plant such as XL.
Econiche, vaccine developed by Brett Finlay's team at UBC
       Given these facts, a research team led by Brett Finlay, a UBC microbiologist at the Michael Smith Laboratories, developed a vaccine to E. coli 0157:H7 for use in cattle that can significantly reduce the amount of bacteria shed, in order to protect public health. The vaccine “Econiche” is licensed by Bioniche Life Sciences Inc. Rick Culbert, President of Bioniche Food Safety, describes the vaccine as “the world's first fully licensed vaccine for use in cattle to reduce shedding of E. coli 0157”. He said “there are a few producers (both beef and dairy) that have faithfully been using the vaccine. These producers do so because they believe it is the right thing to do.” Because of the lack of symptoms in cattle, and the lack of negative impact on productivity, the vaccine is perhaps seen more as an added expense. “As the majority of cattlemen are commodity oriented, with resistance to input costs, the product over all has less than 5% market penetration.” Mr. Culbert adds that most enquiries into the vaccine following the XL outbreak have been by consumers and media, not by cattle producers. “I suppose that is appropriate in that the vaccine is not for the benefit of the cattle. It is for the benefit of the consumer – by reducing the risk of E. coli 0157 exposure.” In Bioniche's recent annual report, President Graham McRae said “ sales of our E. coli 0157 vaccine – Econiche – have been limited to date as there is presently no mandatory requirement for cattlemen in Canada to vaccinate their animals, nor do they receive any compensation or incentive to do so.”
      Some of the cattle producers that are using the vaccine are those that show cattle, and don't want to risk their animals contracting the disease on the show circuit, or passing on any such bacteria to the public at the fairs. Other users are often special label beef, that can use the reduction or absence of the E. coli 0157 as a marketing feature for public safety. Many producers, and especially feedlot operators, have an interest in using the vaccine but would like to see research trial results and work done to reduce the number of injections from three to two. Some are looking forward to trials that are testing probiotics that can perhaps compete with E. coli 0157.
       And then there is the simple observation made several years ago that a forage-based diet of grass and hay will reduce the shedding of the bacteria. Even so, E. coli 0157 is so infectious in humans that it does not take very many bacteria to cause an infection. Even with reduced numbers at the animal level, there still needs to be good slaughter practices of meat. Enormous plants with fast lines and minimal inspection practices are the last thing we need to have safemeat.
      A recent press release by XL outlines a plan that should significantly reduce such incidents in the future. It includes holding all carcasses until test results are completed. That should have been the standard in a plant as large as this all along, knowing that it was a matter of time before the system failed. And the CFIA should not be off the hook and pointing fingers. There is no reason why a CFIA inspector at the plant could not have stopped the line or ordered that procedures be changed as soon as deficiencies were noted. Small plants, like Jacques Campbell's, are under such CFIA scrutiny every time they slaughter. Why not the big federal plants? Local food just looks better and better.

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