October 30, 2003



Poor Sanitary in Slaughterhouses in Canada May Lead To Unsafe Meat Products


More than half of the slaughterhouses in Canada have "major" deficiencies that could risk the safety of their meat products, according to internal inspection reports obtained by the Vancouver Sun.


"It's evidence of a huge problem," said Michael McBane, national co-ordinator for the Canadian Health Coalition, a watchdog group. "It is evidence of very poor sanitary standards (and it) should worry anybody who is eating meat."


Concerns about Canada's meat products and slaughterhouse procedures were raised earlier this year, when federal scientists discovered a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) in an Alberta cow on May 20. Following that scare, Vancouver Sun made a request under the Access to Information Act for the most recent monthly inspection reports for all federally regulated slaughterhouses.


In response, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency provided reports for 106 slaughterhouses, most written in May or June 2003.


Of those reports, 61 (57.5%) list at least one "major deviation" from regulations, everything from the mistreatment of animals to fecal matter on carcasses. Another 39 (36.8%) listed minor deviations. Only six (5.7%) had no deviations at all.


According to the food inspection agency's manual of procedures, a major deviation is defined as a problem that could jeopardize the wholesomeness of the product. Measures to eliminate the hazard concerning the safety of the products produced are to be taken immediately.


However, Robert Charlebois, national manager of the agency's meat program, said the public need not to worry about the quality of their meat because federal inspectors are present at slaughterhouses at all times. "The public need not be ... concerned with these facts," he said. "Actions are taken immediately by CFIA staff when we are facing any food safety issues."


Some of the major problems identified in the reports include: 

    • "Fecal material on carcass in cooler" at Superior Exports in Ontario;
    • "Flies entering" the box room through an open door at Britco Pork in Langley, B.C.;
    • "Carcasses stored on the floor" at J&M Meats International in Alberta;
    • "Mould present on knife storage containers" at Maple Leaf Poultry in Nova Scotia; and
    • Inadequate handling of birds in the kill room and unclean cages at Uniturkey in Quebec. 

Most of the problems noted in the reports concern issues of sanitation and cleanliness.

Michael Hansen, a U.S. food safety expert with the Consumers Union, the independent agency that publishes Consumer Reports, said slaughterhouses must be kept to high cleanliness standards because meat can be a breeding ground for pathogens like salmonella.


"One animal can contaminate many others, so if you don't have very clean conditions ... then those bacteria can grow and multiply," said Mr. Hansen, who has a PhD in biology. "If it's a very unhygienic slaughterhouse, it's easy for a lot of things to get infected."


Mr. Hansen said he was particularly concerned the inspection reports show fecal matter was found on a carcass. This is because that is one of the primary ways in which the deadly E. coli bacterium is spread. "Those are basically gut bacteria, so the way they are contaminating meat is by fecal content," he said.

None of the inspection reports explicitly mention mad cow disease. But Mr. Hansen said the rate of non-compliance makes him wonder how well new regulations introduced by the inspection agency in July to prevent BSE are being followed.


Martin Conrad, food safety co-ordinator at Bouvry Exports, said the problems identified in the reports have since been rectified, and that the meat products produced by his plant are safe. "It's not a perfect world and every plant has got problems to deal with," Mr. Conrad said. "But as far as the safety of the product, that's something we take very seriously."


Kevin McCullough, president of J&M Meats International, said the carcasses found on the floor of his plant were an isolated incident caused by carcasses slipping off a piece of plastic. He said it hasn't happened again since, and described the products produced by his plant as "good quality."


Paul Beauchamp, a spokesman for Uniturkey, said the plant has new policies for the handling of birds in the kill room and has cleaned its cages since the inspection report. "We corrected all those elements and I think everything is now fine."


Mike Lee, manager of the Maple Leaf Poultry plant in Nova Scotia, said the problem with mould identified in the report was fixed right away.


"As soon as it was brought to our attention it was corrected immediately," Mr. Lee said. "At Maple Leaf Foods, we are extremely committed to food safety. We take it very seriously."

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