I’m a bit confused. Yesterday it was reported that Ranchers Beef Ltd (now out of business) was both the source of an E. coli outbreak in the United States that had sickened at least 40 tied to the consumption of Topps Meat (also out of business) AND 44 ill persons and 1 death in Canada.  See, "Topps story continues to grow more ominous."  Now the Ottawa Government releases this press statement:

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is warning the public not to consume the various beef products described below because these products may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 bacteria. The affected products are being recalled as a result of the CFIA’s investigation and traceback conducted on contaminated beef involving Ranchers Beef Ltd. (Establishment 630), Balzac, Alberta.  There have been no reported illnesses associated with the consumption of these products.

This does seem to contradict the press release from the same government entity just the day before:

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) are currently investigating possible linkages between E. coli cases that occurred earlier this summer in Canada. The investigation is examining 45 cases of E. coli O157:H7 that were found in New Brunswick, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Ontario and British Columbia. These cases were previously reported from July to September, 2007. As a result of these cases, eleven people were hospitalized and one elderly individual died.

However, according to the USA FSIS, there seems to be a “genetic link” to both the 40 people ill from the Topps outbreak and the 44 people ill and 1 death in Canada:

On October 25, the CFIA provided FSIS with PFGE patterns, or DNA fingerprints, from tests of beef trim from a Canadian firm, Ranchers Beef, Ltd., Canadian establishment number 630. This firm provided trim to the Topps Meat Company. While the firm, which had been located in Balzac, Alberta, ceased operations on August 15, 2007, some product remained in storage and was collected and tested by CFIA as part of the joint investigation of the Topps recall and as part of CFIA’s own investigation into 45 illnesses in Canada from E. coli O157:H7.

It is hard to imagine that our USDA/FSIS might be more competent that its Canadian counterpart. 

Remember, according the New Jersey AP, Topps products revealed three different E. coli O157:H7 genetic "fingerprints," according to Kenneth Petersen, an assistant administrator at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. This means that although one of these fingerprints has been traced to Ranchers Beef, Ltd., in Canada, it will be interesting to see if we can track the other fingerprints to the source – Tyson, IBP, Cargill, others?  It will also be interesting to get legal jurisdiction over out of country corporations.

Also, recall the report from the New York Times, revealed that Topps sourced a significant amount of beef trimmings from countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Uruguay – countries that FSIS has required little E. coli O157:H7 testing.  Will FSIS change this rule too soon?

So, FSIS has limited requirements that out of country producers test for E. coli.  And, we have learned during the Topps recall that Topps had cut back on its testing for E. coli.  It will be interesting to see if other meat companies have been doing the same.  Perhaps more testing at the retail (grocer store) would be helpful in tracking this ugly bug?  According to the FSIS website, “the agency still collects some samples from retail stores, but normally only when the retail store actually produces raw ground beef using trimmings from a cutting/boning operation conducted at the store.”  Perhaps it or someone should do more retail testing?

I also think we need to look at several other reasons for the spike in E. coli illnesses and recalls (in addition to testing product), such as: 1)  has the make-up of workers in slaughter plants changed in 2007?  Do we have less experienced workers?  2)  has cattle feed in 2007 changed significantly to allow greater growth of E. coli O157:H7?  3)  has global warming impacted the ecology of E. coli O157:H7?  Other ideas?