More politics than science in E. coli beef recall: food-safety expert
A vehicle passes the main entrance sign leaving XL Foods' Lakeside Packers plant at Brooks, Alberta on Monday, Oct. 1, 2012. (Larry MacDougal / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Published Friday, October 12, 2012 7:51PM EDT
OTTAWA--Some food-safety experts are calling the recall of tonnes of meat produced by XL Foods unnecessary — the result of what one describes as "collective hysteria."
That's the assessment of Dr. Jean Kamanzi, who used to be a director at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and now is responsible for food hygiene in Africa for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Program.
He says any E. coli bacteria in the meat could be rendered harmless if it's cooked to a safe internal temperature — 71 degrees celsius.
"The meat we're now throwing into the garbage, which contains this so-called E. coli, if you take it and cook it like you're supposed to there's no problem," Kamanzi said in an interview.
"It's edible. These are good proteins."
But in an emailed response, the federal government says it took the precautions it did because research shows many Canadians wouldn't apply food-safety recommendations.
The federal email said data suggests most Canadians do not use a thermometer to test food temperature when they cook.
Kamanzi, however, suggests the recall is not based on rational science.
"This is collective hysteria," he said. "We're throwing away meat, we're throwing everything away. Maybe we're in a rich country and we can allow ourselves the luxury of not taking any risks at all — but these risks, we take them every day when we touch meat."
There's a similar assessment from Dr. Sylvain Quessy, who teaches meat hygiene and is the vice-dean at the faculty of veterinary medicine at the University of Montreal.
He says that, from a statistical standpoint, the number of illnesses associated with the type of E. coli in the XL Foods safety investigation — 15 Canadian cases in a month — is not especially alarming.
"Everyone's worrying about a number of cases that is not excessive compared with what you'd normally expect," he said.
"What we're telling people — it's as true now as it was before — is you need to cook your meat properly. (And) wash your hands and wash the things the raw meat touched and you eliminate the danger."
Quessy says recent federal steps don't make meat any more or less safe than it would have been six months ago.
The XL plant in Brooks, Alta., the second largest in Canada, has not been allowed to slaughter cattle or send beef to market since Sept. 27.
On Thursday, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency allowed the plant to start processing some carcasses under increased scrutiny and testing, but no meat can leave the plant.
In an emailed response, the federal government described its recall as the responsible step to take, given the circumstances.
"Recent research shows that many Canadians don't always apply all the recommendations for safe food handling. For example, statistics show that most Canadians do not use a digital thermometer for food when they cook," said the email.
"That's why, despite the fact that proper cooking and handling of food helps prevent illness, the best way to protect yourself is to not eat recalled products at all."