The association representing the country's major grocery stores, including Loblaws, Metro and Wal-Mart, is assuring consumers that beef currently on store shelves is safe to eat.
E. coli contamination of beef produced by the Alberta plant XL Foods Inc. in late August and early September has led to the biggest food recall in Canadian history.
There have been five confirmed cases of E.coli illnesses in Alberta associated with consumption of beef from the plant, and four other cases are being investigated.
Health officials are also looking to 13 cases of E.coli in Saskatchewan. There's also been a single case of E.coli in Newfoundland and Labrador of the same strain found in the contaminated beef.
Dave Wilkes, senior vice-president of the Retail Council of Canada's grocery division, said his members have been removing products from their stores since recalls were announced last month by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
They've since gone a step further, and removed all XL Foods Inc. products put out on certain production dates.
“What our members did was they were advised that those production dates had concerns with the meat that was processed,” Wilkes said.
“What they did immediately was identify any of the products that they had received from their supplier or they had in their stores that was within those production dates, and removed it several days ago.
“With the additional items published by CFIA in the recall, from our members' perspective, those items are already off the shelf.”
As for what consumers should be doing, he advises them to check their freezer to see if they have any of the products on the CFIA recall list and “either destroy those products or return them to the grocer they were purchased at.”
In the same vein, if consumers have prepared foods made from beef that they've frozen, and they're not sure where they got the meat from, “the appropriate and wise thing to do to ensure the safety is to dispose of those kinds of prepared dishes.”
The owners or managers of several local grocery stores were contacted about the issue, but most said they weren't allowed to comment.
They directed Northern Life to speak to officials with their respective grocery store chains. These chains are in turn directing media to speak to Wilkes.
Brent Battistelli, owner of Battistelli's: Your Independent Grocer in Lively, did, however, venture a few comments.
He said his store didn't receive any of the products from “that lot number that was bad.” In general, though, Battistelli said when it comes to food recalls, he takes direction from his food suppliers and the CFIA.
“As soon as we hear of any potential recalls with any product, we act accordingly, right away,” he said. “It's a tough issue. It shakes people's confidence in the food supply.”
XL Foods Inc. issued a statement Oct. 4, in which it said it will only reopen the plant where the contamination occurred when the CFIA is satisfied people's health is not at risk.
“We believed XL Foods was a leader in the beef processing industry with our food safety protocols, but we have now learned it was not enough,” the statement said.
It's a tough issue. It shakes people's confidence in the food supply.
owner of Battistelli's: Your Independent Grocer
“We take full responsibility for our plant operations and the food it produces, which is consumed by Canadians from coast to coast. We are doing everything we can to take the lead in an enhanced comprehensive food safety program for our plant.”
Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said in an Oct. 4 statement that the facility will not be allowed to reopen until the president of the CFIA “has confirmed, in writing to me, that it is safe. Canadians can be assured that they are and will continue to be our first priority."
Although not required to do so by the CFIA, the Sudbury and District Health Unit has been contacting local food stores, restaurants and institutions which offer food service to notify them of the recalls.
In most cases, when contacted by the health unit, grocery stores have already removed the affected products from their shelves, according to Stacey Laforest, the health unit's manager of environmental health.
“There were a few we had made contact with and we were the initial point of identification,” she said. “Not everybody goes through a formal food distribution system to obtain their products.”
Echoing Wilkes' comments, Laforest advises people to check the CFIA's website to see if any beef they're storing is on the recall list, and if they're in doubt, to contact the store where they bought the product to check.
E.coli causes a number of symptoms, including vomiting, nausea, bloody diarrhea and headache. There's very often little or no fever associated with the illness, she said.
About 15 per cent of children infected with E.coli develop an illness called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HAP) which affects the kidneys, Laforest said.
But so far, there haven't been any cases of E.coli in the region, she said.
“It is a reportable disease,” Laforest said. “If somebody goes to see their physician to seek medical treatment and submits a stool sample, should the stool sample test positive for E.coli, that's automatically reported to us.”
Eat Local Sudbury, which gets its beef from small-scale suppliers on Manitoulin Island and New Liskeard, hasn't seen a jump in beef sales because of the recall, according to the managing director of the downtown Sudbury local food store.
But Peggy Baillie said she thinks local beef is a safer and healthier option than what can be found at grocery stores.
“These are small businesses,” she said. “They want to take care that everything goes right. They're working very closely to the bottom dollar. There's not a lot of margin for these small businesses. They want to make sure everything is done properly, because they can't afford to have any recalls.”
The abattoirs where the beef is processed are also highly regulated, and “there's an inspector there a lot,” Baillie said.
Consumers of local beef also have the advantage of knowing where their meat came from, and what it was raised on, she said.
“Most cattle is raised mainly on a soy and corn diet, whereas none of our farmers use corn or soy,” Baillie said.
“There's the benefits of spending your money and keeping it in the local economy, and just the environmental impact. Local food has a much lower environmental impact, because our farmers are usually conscious about being ecological and those kinds of things.”
To view the CFIA recall list, visit www.inspection.gc.ca.