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CFIA Report: XL Foods Recall Preventable with Proper Culture

Francis Loughheed

In September 2012, XL Foods – the second largest meat processing plant in Canada, representing one-third of the beef processing capacity in the country – was shut down in what would become the largest meat recall in Canadian history.

I posted a blog at that time to address the ongoing crisis, and wrote:

“The comments from the CFIA investigation suggest a breakdown in the food safety culture within the plant.“

This week the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) released the report and recommendations of the Independent Expert Advisory Panel investigation. And the report confirmed my suspicions.

Xl foods logoIt provides a comprehensive overview of the probable circumstances that led to the E. coli infection, and a detailed review of the response.

The report outlines multiple breakdowns in the food safety management systems and protocols within the XL Foods plant, challenges in getting appropriate information, and issues in external communications. 

In the Closing Thoughts the authors of the report have this to say (emphasis mine):

The XL Foods Inc. recall was exacerbated by a number of key factors. The company’s
record keeping was wanting. It was unprepared to deliver important product and
distribution information promptly to inspection authorities. Because the recall involved
the country’s second largest beef processor, producers had few alternatives for their cattle once the plant closed.

Coordination of communications with the public left consumers confused and worried. Over a period of several weeks, they heard that more and more product was not to be consumed. It is no surprise that polls suggest Canadians worry most about E. coli O157:H7 contamination in their food, and believe that it is on the rise.

And it was all preventable.

Food safety is comprised of two essential elements: a system, and the people that implement it.

As we have already noted, Canada’s food safety system is a complex one; given the several jurisdictions that govern us, that system necessarily involves many players. Despite some challenges, however, it works. It is recognized globally as a sound approach to food safety.

That said, continuous improvement is vital if we are to remain ahead of the food safety
curve. The Panel has identified recommendations that we believe contribute to that effort. The greater element – and the greater challenge – of food safety is people. Systems are of no use without the skill, vigilance and commitment of individuals. The lion’s share of our recommendations focus on this element.

We have already noted that food safety is a philosophy. It must be a culture adopted and practised across all levels of an organization – from the company president to the beef trimmer on the night shift; from the veterinarian in charge to the meat inspector. These individuals play a key and important role in the health of consumers. They must take that responsibility seriously.

Next Steps

Butchers-counterSenior Executives and Managers across the food manufacturing industry need to review their own food safety culture in light of the results of the XL Foods Inc. Expert Advisory Panel Review. 

  • Sanitation, information and communications processes need to be effective. 
  • Full mock recall exercises should be undertaken. 
  • But most importantly, food safety is first and foremost a people issue.  A commitment to an organizational culture – where Food Safety issues are at the core of every employee’s work – must be supported and promoted.

It has long been obvious that senior leaders prefer to remain wilfully ignorant of the processes and behaviours that can allow them to create and direct the corporate culture within their organizations.  Hopefully, the fallout from the XL Foods fiasco will put an end to this ‘ostrich’ management style, and will motivate them to seek out the knowledge and resources needed to address this issue head-on.


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