At the end of a gravel road 20 kilometres east of Fort St. John, Arlene Laughren’s house used to be her little piece of heaven. Now it’s like a prison.
Laughren moved here six years ago with her husband, Keith Holmes, to raise horses, llamas, sheep, and chickens and to grow vegetables on a 66-hectare hobby farm amid the picturesque coulees, hills, and ravines by the Peace River.
Now most of the animals are gone and her garden is overgrown with tall weeds. Laughren, 53, is stuck at home while her husband is away at work. She has brain damage, memory loss, and poor balance. She can no longer drive and hasn’t worked in more than two years—ever since she got two brain abscesses after eating a bad ham sandwich.
It was July 2008 when Laughren ate the ham produced by Maple Leaf Foods while at the Fort St. John hospital. She was getting treatment related to Crohn’s disease, which she has had since childhood. Her medication suppressed her immune system and made her more vulnerable to the Listeria monocytogenes bacteria on the ham.
Four days after the fateful meal, violent headaches started and she began to feel dizzy. After two falls, hospital staff gave her a CAT scan and saw something abnormal in her brain. Laughren was flown by air ambulance to Vancouver, where she had brain surgery. Doctors traced the abscesses to the ham, and she was diagnosed with the bacterial infection listeriosis. She remained in a Vancouver hospital for five months of treatment, followed by six weeks of rehabilitation.
Two years later, Laughren says doctors told her she will never work again. She used to counsel youth with difficulties at the Fort St. John high school. “I really miss them,” she says.
Laughren was one of hundreds of Canadians sickened—many with gastroenteritis—in the 2008 Maple Leaf listeria outbreak, which caused 57 confirmed cases of listeriosis. Twenty-three died, including one in B.C., and many, like Laughren, suffered permanent disabilities. A government inquiry into the fiasco placed much of the blame on numerous shortcomings in the government’s food-safety system.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency was especially singled out. The so-called Weatherill inquiry said it didn’t have enough meat inspectors and was poorly managed. For four years, inspectors had failed to do all of the required audits of the Toronto Maple Leaf plant that produced the tainted meat. The inquiry made 57 recommendations for improvements.
But more than a year later, food scientists and the CFIA’s own meat inspectors say that most of the recommendations have yet to be adopted and that Canada’s food supply may not be safer than before.
If anything, they say the level of inspection of deli meats—the kind involved in the Maple Leaf episode—may actually have declined. Meanwhile, the numbers of food poisonings and recalls are rising. And new, controversial methods of producing meat are increasing the risk of food-borne illnesses even more while raising other questions about the meat on our plates.
“The rates of listeria recalls in recent years are amazing. It’s one after the other. The rates are going up; recalls are going up. Something is fundamentally wrong,” says Kevin Allen, an assistant professor of food microbiology at the University of British Columbia.
“It’s safe to say some of the sanitation methods are not working as they should,” he says in a phone interview from his office. “There is a lack of control in the food-production process.”
Since the 2004 fiscal year, Canada has seen a steady rise in the number of meat and poultry recalls each year, according to data provided by the CFIA (which would not grant an interview to the Georgia Straight). The number has more than doubled, from 44 in 2004 to 91 in 2008. B.C. has been especially hard hit by food recalls. It experienced 605 recalls of all types of food, including meat and poultry, between 2004 and 2008—or 26 percent of the national total. Yet B.C. has only 13 percent of Canada’s population.
And because most food-borne illnesses never come to the government’s attention, the reported cases represent just a tiny fraction of all the food poisonings—only one out of every 300 to 350 actual cases, according to the Maple Leaf inquiry. In fact, food-borne illnesses sicken a whopping 11 to 13 million Canadians each year, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, and as many as 500 may die as a result.
Why are food poisonings skyrocketing? Bob Kingston has a good idea why: a hobbled meat-inspection system that’s a shadow of its former self and that struggles to keep up with the fast-changing food industry. If anything, he says, meat inspectors are even more taxed now than before the Maple Leaf disaster.
Kingston worked for almost 30 years as a federal quarantine inspector in Burnaby before becoming president of the 9,500-member Agriculture Union, which includes federal meat inspectors. Earlier this year, his union gave Canada’s food-safety system a failing grade for heeding so few of the Maple Leaf inquiry’s recommendations.
“You’re up to five or six plants per inspector. I know inspectors who have told me they are responsible for 10 plants. If they actually want enforcement, it’s way over the top,” he says.
“All you have time to do is glance at the paperwork, see if it’s fine, and race to the next plant. If you have to do an enforcement action, good luck finding time to do it.”
The problem comes down to time. It takes about 800 hours (or 20 weeks of full-time work) to meet inspection requirements for a single processed-meat plant, according to union estimates. That doesn’t include hundreds of additional hours needed for certifying imports and exports, plus leave or vacation time.
“I feel for the inspectors,” says UBC’s Allen. “Many are faced with an unruly workload. They’re really taxed right now.”
According to the Weatherill inquiry, government inspectors assigned to the Toronto Maple Leaf plant “appear to have been stressed due to their responsibilities at other plants”. In September 2009, with a possible federal election looming, Ottawa promised to hire 70 new meat inspectors to fill shortfalls identified in the inquiry. A year later, only 40 of the new positions have been filled. Much of the money for the new hires was simply taken out of other CFIA operations, Kingston says; penny-pinching at the agency is so tight that it has cancelled training initiatives and some offices have no money for pens or paper.
Even our neighbours are taking notice. Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture told Canada it wasn’t meeting U.S. standards for inspecting processed meat destined for export south of the border. It demanded that Canadian meat inspectors check up on exporting plants once every 12 hours, as U.S. standards require.
Canada increased the level of checks to that standard. Meanwhile, plants making processed meat for Canadians are inspected at the far more leisurely pace of only once a week. The CFIA says inspectors spend more time during each of their weekly inspections of the plants with Canadian-destined meat, so the total amount of inspection time is the same as for U.S.–destined meat.
Kingston says this is “highly unlikely”. He notes that the CFIA would have needed the equivalent of 50 extra full-time inspectors to meet the greater frequency of USDA-mandated inspections. If the level of inspection was really the same, he says, no new hires would have been needed.
He also says plants visited more often tend to have better safety records. “If an inspector comes once a day, a plant behaves totally differently than when they know the inspector is coming only once a week,” he says.
Because there is little money for the new hires, the extra USDA-mandated inspections have resulted in astronomical levels of overtime for the CFIA’s existing 260 processed-meat inspectors, Kingston says. The additional burden means many inspectors are now faced with an even greater workload than before 2008, he says.
It wasn’t always like this. The food-safety system and meat industry have both undergone a sea change since 1981, when Kingston became a union rep for federal agriculture department employees, including meat inspectors. (He moved to the CFIA when it was created in 1997.)
In the 1980s, beef was usually butchered by hand in a large number of small meat-processing plants spread across the country. Each one had a federal meat inspector assigned to oversee it full-time. Mechanization of slaughterhouse operations and processing started to transform the industry in the late 1980s and 1990s. Machines run by low-wage operators started to replace trained butchers. The small plants were consolidated into fewer, large operations—some on a massive scale. One plant in Alberta processes 2,000 beef carcasses in a single day. Another in Manitoba goes through 10,000 pigs daily.
The machines might be more efficient, but they’re also less able than a human hand to butcher an animal in a way that avoids contaminating it with bacteria-laden feces, Kingston says. Also, when there was a bacteria outbreak at one of the smaller plants, it was usually pretty limited in scope. “Now if you do half a day’s run [of tainted product] out of one of these big plants, you’ve contaminated half the continent,” Kingston says.
These were also the lean years of Brian Mulroney’s budget cutbacks and deregulation. Ottawa was only too happy to acquiesce to industry demands to reduce the burden of meat inspection. Inspectors now found themselves responsible for several facilities each, as opposed to one, even as the plants ballooned in size.
At the same time, inspectors got go-easy marching orders. Previously, when inspectors saw a problem—like unsanitary conditions—they’d pull the plug on operations or slow production until the issue was fixed.
Starting in 2005, the federal government took the deregulation a step further by quietly implementing a new food-safety system that shifted much of the burden of policing to the meat industry. Instead of shutting down a dirty facility, inspectors were instructed to issue a “corrective action request”. A meat processor would now usually have 14 days to respond with an explanation of how it would deal with the issue—and would, in most cases, have another 60 days to implement changes. Companies can request time extensions past the initial 60 days. They are routinely granted, Kingston says.
An inspector who shuts down a meat plant today “would probably be disciplined unless he has approval from five levels of management. He would be accused of being overzealous,” Kingston says.
The new meat-inspection regimen was slammed in the Maple Leaf inquiry, which said it was plagued by a shortage of inspectors, poor planning, mismanagement, and lack of training for supervisors. The Weatherill inquiry called on the CFIA to audit its new system; it is not clear if that audit is still under way.
At the same time as Canada deregulated meat production, other innovations were altering the very composition of the meat we eat and creating new challenges for food safety. One of the greatest changes was finding a profitable new use for fatty layers at the outer surfaces of a cow carcass, known in the industry as “bench trim”.
Once used mostly for pet food and cooking oil, the fatty trimmings are now widely used in hamburger in Canada and the U.S. The trimmings are combined with leaner cuts from many different cows, frequently from various countries, the New York Times reported in an October 2009 investigation. Author Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) wrote in Rolling Stone back in 1998 that one U.S. fast-food burger patty may contain meat from 40 to 100 different cows raised in as many as six different countries.
The low-grade cuts are more susceptible to E. coli bacterial contamination because they come from parts of the cow that are more likely to come into contact with feces. Trimmings were at the centre of controversy in the U.S. last year after illness outbreaks linked to tainted hamburger. The outbreaks prompted U.S. authorities to tighten inspection of bench trim.
More controversy has surrounded “meat glue”. The “glue” is a natural protein derived from cow or pig blood. It allows meat processors to stick together various lumps of meat into a regular-looking steak, roast, or kebab. In the meat business, it’s known as “restructured beef”.
Canada allows the product to be sold here, but the European parliament rejected it for sale in the EU in May because of concerns that artificial steaks could mislead the public. “Consumers in Europe should be able to trust that they are buying a real steak or ham, not pieces of meat that have been glued together,” Jo Lienen, chair of the parliament’s environment committee, said during debate on the issue.
The glue also raises food-safety issues, says Keith Warriner, an associate professor of food science at the University of Guelph, in a phone interview from his office. If there is a bacteria outbreak, it’s much harder to figure out the source when chunks of meat from multiple cows were combined.
Also, the products need to be fully cooked, like ground beef, to kill bacteria. A regular steak is safe to eat medium-rare because only its surface has bacteria. But when different cuts of meat are blended together, the product may have contaminated surfaces on the inside, and it has to be cooked to an internal temperature of 71 ° C (160 ° F). This, Warriner says, could lead to confusion among consumers used to cooking their steaks medium-rare (63 ° C, or 145 ° F).
Yet another innovation is “modified atmosphere packaging”, the widespread practice of filling meat packaging with adjusted levels of oxygen and other gases. The gases can keep meat from losing its fresh-looking red hue. Shiv Chopra, an Ottawa food-safety expert and retired Health Canada scientist, said in an e-mail that the technique is “dangerous” because it may prevent shoppers from seeing when meat has gone bad. UBC’s Allen agreed: “This can be misleading to consumers.”
It all adds up to huge challenges for a tattered food-safety system. Kingston predicts more Maple Leaf–type incidents. “It’s inevitable that more of this comes along if nothing changes.”
Back at her home outside Fort St. John, Laughren is disheartened. “The one thing I thought would come from this is they would improve food safety. But I don’t think there has been much of anything done.”
She gazes longingly at the horse saddle hanging on a saddle rack in her living room. She used to ride in amateur competitions, but now she doesn’t have enough coordination to ride a horse. She is still waiting to receive part of a $27-million payout that Maple Leaf agreed to make last year to settle several class-action lawsuits related to the listeria outbreak. With thousands of claimants expected, the processing of claims has been a time-consuming task.
Meanwhile, the Canada Revenue Agency is hounding her husband for writing off his stay in Vancouver while he helped Laughren recover from her brain surgery. Despite a doctor’s letter saying her husband’s presence “was imperative for her treatment”, the taxman nixed the write-off and is demanding back taxes.
“You just expect the government to be watching our backs. But that’s silly,” Laughren says.
Her memory loss means she sometimes forgets things like friends’ names and her phone number, but there’s one thing she always remembers: her decision to never eat processed meat again.