Canadian beef recall wreaks havoc in the U.S.

Oct 18, 2012

While Canada grapples with the largest beef recall in its history, meat suppliers and retailers in the U.S. have been dealing with their own share of fallout from the contaminated meat. The recall has consumers and food safety advocates demanding anew that the U.S. Department of Agriculture keep fresh meat border inspections in place so tainted meat can be stopped before it enters the food supply chain.

Here's the back story: On Sept. 16, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency pulled 1.5 million pounds of beef produced at an XL Foods plant in Alberta off the Canadian market because of possible contamination from a strain of E. Coli bacteria called O157:H7 that was found in the meat.  It's too early to say how much the beef recall and subsequent temporary closure of its plant will cost XL Foods and its parent company, Nillson Bros., but it's likely to be in the millions. So far, 15 Canadians have also gotten sick from eating meat containing the E. coli strain and a class action lawsuit filed by one of them earlier this month will likely further cut into the company's bottom line.

But while the recall plays out on Canadian soil, the E. coli-tainted beef continues to wreak havoc on America's food supply chain. The contamination was first discovered by the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) on Sept. 3 at an inspection station in Montana. The group alerted its Canadian counterpart and then issued a public health alert on Sept. 20 announcing that 890,000 pounds of boneless beef trim from the XL Foods Alberta plant had already been shipped to American companies. After urging companies to pull the possibly contaminated meat off the market, the FSIS on Oct. 4 revised its estimate, saying the amount of XL Foods beef that had reached the U.S. was closer to 2.5 million pounds. 

America's share of contaminated beef was that much larger because it included 1.1 million pounds of trim, along with another 1.4 million pounds of primal and sub-primal cuts used to produce steaks, roasts, mechanically tenderized steaks and roasts, and ground beef, according to the FSIS. The XL Foods beef had been received by companies based in California, Michigan, Nebraska, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin and then had been used as an ingredient to make sliders, meatloaf, hamburgers and other beef products. Those foods were then sold to retailers like Wal-Mart, which had to pull the products out of its stores due to possible contamination.

Although the U.S. only imports some 2 billion pounds of beef and veal from Canada each year -- making up just 2.7 percent of the beef Americans eat each year, according to the USDA -- it's easy to see how that amount could be much larger given all the different beef products formed in the U.S., which use imported beef as an ingredient.

There hasn't yet been an American case of illness linked to E. coli-tainted beef. But American consumers and food safety advocates are not waiting for one to come to light. A group called the Safe Food Coalition sent USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack a letter in September demanding that the U.S. continue to do fresh meat inspections at the border since a food inspection in Montana caught the E. coli contamination on Sept. 3.

While the Safe Food Coalition awaits an answer, there's word that for the first time in three years, the USDA will audit the Canadian Food Inspection Agency later this month, and that the audit will include a stop at the Alberta XL Foods plant. That could determine when and if XL Foods will resume shipping to the U.S. in the future.