This fall’s large-scale beef recall from Alberta’s XL Foods has put E. coli in the spotlight. More than 1,500 items were recalled when E. coli contamination was detected in XL’s establishment 38 in September. This recent event is the largest beef recall in Canadian history.
It’s important to remind you that products manufactured in Maple Leaf facilities were not affected by the recall. Where implicated raw materials were used, the beef products were processed with a thermal lethality treatment (cooked) capable of killing the E. coli 0157:H7 pathogen.
Many questions have popped up since this massive recall, so we thought it prudent to review E. coli and provide you with some information about how recalls are handled in Canada.
Raw and undercooked beef, whether ground or whole cut, is one of the leading carriers of the bacteria known as Escherichia coli, or more commonly, E. coli. Most strains of E. coli are harmless, but strains like E. coli O157: H7 can make people sick, causing severe stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting. Most people who become ill from E. coli bacteria will recover within 7 to 10 days. However, about 5 to 10 percent of those who get sick develop hemolytic uremic syndrome, an unusual type of kidney failure and blood disorder, which can be fatal.
Symptoms of E. coli infections are likely to be more severe among children, pregnant women and the elderly. At least 15 Canadians contracted E. coli by eating beef from XL Foods — seven people in Alberta, one in Newfoundland, four in Quebec and three in BC.
E. coli in beef
Beef can become contaminated with E. coli when animals are slaughtered or processed, even if precautions are taken. In processed or ground meat, the bacteria can be spread throughout the meat. Food can also be contaminated when it is handled by a person infected with E. coli, or from cross-contamination because of unsanitary food handling practices.
What went wrong at XL’s Establishment 38? The Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s (CFIA) in-depth review of the plant determined that there was no single factor that led to E. colicontamination of product leaving the plant. Instead, it was a combination of several deficiencies that probably played a role. By themselves, each of these findings would not typically signal an immediate concern during the course of normal inspection activities.
Deficiencies were identified by the CFIA in the areas of E. coliO157:H7 control measures and sampling and testing procedures. Establishment 38 had monitoring measures in place, but was not properly conducting trend analysis of the data that was collected. The CFIA review found that the plant needs to improve its trend analysis and strengthen its response measures when a higher than normal number of detections are made.
In addition, the company’s control measures for meat that tested positive for E. coliO157:H7 were not always being followed correctly. Meat that tested positive for E. coliO157:H7 was properly handled, but a small amount of meat produced immediately before and after the contaminated product was not diverted from the fresh meat line.
Keep it safe
Proper hygiene, safe food handling and preparation practices are keys to preventing the spread of E. coli. As a general reminder, beef should be cooked to 71°C (160°F) and a digital thermometer should be used to check the internal temperature.