One of British Columbia's largest meat processing plants covered up lab results that showed a sample of its product was contaminated with the deadly E. coli O157 strain, CBC News has learned.
The coverup came to light when Daniel Land, who oversaw the plant's quality assurance, contacted CBC News, saying officials at Pitt Meadows Meats Ltd. told him to keep quiet about the positive test result obtained on Sept. 9.
"[The plant manager] said this does not leave the room … and I don't want nobody talking about this," said Land. "He crumpled [the test finding] up and threw it into my garbage can."
Plant officials, however, say they didn't report the test results because they suspected the whistleblower was trying to sabotage the plant and questioned his general sampling procedures. Officials also say later tests were negative for E. coli, suggesting the public was never in danger.
"Under normal circumstances, the CFIA would have been informed immediately," the plant said in a written statement. "But due to the suspect sample handling, the decision was made to handle this issue in house. If the second test result would have been positive, the CFIA would have been notified immediately."
Regulations require federally licenced plants to report positive findings of E. coli O157 strain to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
CFIA inspection manager Joseph Beres called the plant's coverup a serious breach of regulations, but said no evidence of E. coli was found on subsequent tests of the plant's products.
Land said a second test verified the preliminary findings of E. coli and he told a federal inspector at the site. "She cried because she says, 'They're covering it up?' And I says, 'Yes.' And she said, 'Same old story,'" said Land.
Beres said the agency is investigating allegations a federal inspector overlooked a positive E. coli result.
Month before public notified
Land didn't pursue the matter further until the company fired him on Oct. 12. About two weeks later, on Oct. 29, Land contacted the CFIA with his allegations.
But it was a week after the federal agency was first notified — and a month after the plant's positive E. coli test — that the public was warned about the potential danger.
On Nov. 7, CFIA issued a recall, warning consumers that Pitt Meadows' beef and lamb products may be contaminated with E. coli and should not be consumed. All the products were halal, meaning the animals were slaughtered in accordance with Islamic tradition, and distributed in the Metro Vancouver area.
No illnesses have been reported as a result of the meat products.
Pitt Meadows officials call Land a "disgruntled former employee" who they suspect of tampering with products and having "unsanitary practices" during sample taking. Land said he wouldn't know how to tamper to ensure a positive E. coli result on tested meat.
Following the E. coli tests, plant officials said they internally recalled the products and destroyed 61 cases, but acknowledge they should've alerted the federal agency.
"I went along with the decision at that time to not go to CFIA," said Brian Bilkes, business manager for Pitt Meadows. "But we should have gone to the CFIA."
Bilkes apologized to customers and businesses harmed by the recall for not alerting federal officials sooner.
"However, we believed and continue to believe that our former employee was not following procedure with our test sample and that our food products are safe," said Bilkes.
CFIA closed the plant for a month of inspections and testing, reopening it on Dec. 6. Before it reopened, Pitt Meadows officials say they took over 900 samples of meat products, both fresh and frozen. All test results came back negative.
Following an internal company investigation, a number of employees were disciplined, including some who were fired, the company said, but wouldn't reveal specifics. The plant manager is still employed, said Bilkes.
Bob Kingston, president of the Agriculture Union-PSAC representing government food inspectors, said he's not shocked by Land's allegations and believes similar problems happen more than people realize.
"They have covered the tracks so well that it's impossible now to determine the damage, and from a cynical perspective you could say that was their intent," said Kingston.
Small business hurt by recall
The recall has also hurt businesses who sold the Pitt Meadows meat products. Six Vancouver and Pitt Meadows businesses were named in the recall.
The owner of Yaas Bazaar, a Persian store and restaurant on that list, said the recall seriously hurt their business, with sales dropping about 20 per cent.
"I feel someone could do something about it and prevent it and they didn't," said Mehrnaz Oveisi, who has since stopped purchasing products from the plant.
Pitt Meadows, once the only federally regulated plant in the province, is now licenced by the province. Bilkes said the changeover was a business decision made because federal licencing incurs higher costs that are unnecessary because the company wasn't exporting. One of the positions eliminated in the changeover is the job Land used to do.
"We really function the same as before," said Bilkes. "The only difference is we don't have one designated body performing those duties. But it's been spread out to a number of different individuals."
CFIA's Enforcement and Investigations Services division is probing the case and expects to conclude its investigation within a year.