OTTAWA - A beef recall billed as one of the largest in Canadian history has sparked a heated war of words — and numbers — in the House of Commons.

Since a shipment of E. coli-contaminated Canadian beef from Alberta-based XL Foods Inc. was stopped at the American border on Sept. 4, the Conservative government has stoutly maintained the domestic food inspection system is working as it should.

The government, up to and including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has repeatedly claimed it has hired hundreds of additional inspectors since coming to power. It also points to Budget 2012's injection of $51.2 million over the next two years "to strengthen Canada's food safety system."

Opposition critics note the same 2012 budget cut the overall stipend to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency by $2.1 million this fiscal year, $10 million next year and an ongoing $56.1 million by 2014-15.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz attempted to clear the air Wednesday at a news conference in Calgary.

"Since 2006, our government has provided significant funding to improve our food safety system," Ritz said.

"Our government has provided the resources to hire more than 700 additional inspectors, which includes 170 dedicated to meat inspection."

The CFIA did not respond to a request by The Canadian Press to detail the 700 new inspectors or other budgetary matters.

But the agency's own annual reports call into question Ritz's claims.

According to the CFIA's plans and priorities report from May 2012, spending on food safety this year will be $340.3 million, falling slightly to $337.5 million by 2014-15.

That's less than was spent on food safety the year before the Harper Conservatives came to power ($341.5 million) and considerably less than the $379 million the CFIA spent on food safety in 2006-07, the Conservatives' first full year in power.

The claim of 700-plus new inspectors is less simple to refute or confirm.

Bob Kingston, president of the Agriculture Union, said the guild has been asking the CFIA since 2008 for a breakdown of the 700 new hires. "We have yet to get it."

By the union's calculation, 200 of the 700 were hired to control the import of invasive species, plants and diseases — an initiative that started before the Conservatives came to power.

Another 170 inspectors were hired to do compliance verification, mostly involving processed meat plants, following the deadly 2008 listeria outbreak, as recommended in a government report by Sheila Weatherill.

The remaining 330-plus inspectors, the union suggests, includes "basically ... anybody hired at CFIA in the technical category" — jobs as diverse as seed analysis and lumber certification.

"What I can tell you is that the number of those 700 that went into meat slaughter plants is zero," Kingston said Wednesday in an interview.

And yet the production speed and volume of carcasses passing through a plant like XL's has dramatically increased in recent years.

CFIA inspectors used to directly scrutinize the carcass trim, where the E. coli was found in this instance, said Kingston. Now "high line speed" has been implemented in the plant, inspectors can't keep up and the process has been farmed out to employees.

"It is a form of self-regulation," said the union president.

"That happens whenever they move to a faster production process. Instead of bringing more inspectors in to keep a balance with the number of carcasses being produced, they just drop inspection stations and turn that responsibility over to the plant."

Ritz was asked directly Wednesday about the 170 meat inspectors hired by the CFIA, and specifically whether there are any additional inspectors at slaughter plants.

The minister responded by saying he could "speak specifically to the XL plant in Brooks."

"There is a full contingent of inspectors on site, and there was before this incident," said Ritz, listing 40 inspectors and six veterinarians.

"That is a 20 per cent increase over the last couple of years. So we are ramping it up."

Kingston puts another spin on those same numbers.

The XL plant may have a "full contingent" now, but only after repeated union complaints to fill empty positions at the facility.

"That plant was grossly — to the point of illegally — understaffed," Kingston claimed.

"All they've done is fill vacant positions. That's not quite the same as actually increasing the complement."

As for the overall 700 new inspectors everyone from the prime minister down has been citing in defence of the government's handling of the E. coli outbreak, Kingston says the number is meaningless.

"It's totally misleading to the Canadian public," he said. "It's not even worth discussing those numbers because they're simply not relevant to what's happened at XL beef."

"None of those 700 people went into slaughter plants — period."

Earlier on HuffPost:

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  • August 23

    Cows are slaughtered at XL Foods Inc. plant in Brooks, Alta. Beef slaughtered that day will later be recalled.

  • August 24, 27, 28 & 29

    Beef processed at the Brooks facility on these days is later recalled.

  • September 23

    Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is alerted by U.S. officials that beef from the Brooks plant has tested positive for E. coli bacteria. An investigation begins.

  • Septemeber 4

    Four consumers who bought Kirkland Signature brand strip loin grilling steaks from Edmonton Costco at 13650 50th St. N.E. later become ill.

  • September 4

    A Calgary girl, 4, is hospitalized for symptoms caused by E. coli bacteria.

  • September 11 & 12

    Four in Edmonton who ate Kirkland strip loin steak seek medical for symptoms of E. coli poisoning. Two went to hospital but all four are recovering.

  • September 16

    The CFIA issues their first warning, telling people not to eat, sell or serve 26 ground beef/ground-beef products sold at several major stores because they “may be contaminated with E. coli.” Although XL Foods Inc. voluntarily issued the recall, no reported illnesses have been linked to this recall.

  • September 17

    55 more ground beef and ground-beef products are added to the list of products recalled across Canada. All were manufactured at the XL plant in Brooks, Alta.

  • September 18

    Fourteen more products are added to the recall list.

  • September 19

    XL Foods releases a statement saying XL Foods prides itself on providing safe and high quality beef products. Meanwhile, the recall list by the CFIA grows to add 75 more items.

  • September 20

    The United States Food Safety and Inspection Service issues a public-health alert, while the CFIA adds another 37 products to the recall.

  • September 21

    Another 47 products are added to the recall.

  • September 22

    Another 10 products are added to the recall.

  • September 24

    An in-depth review uncovers “several deficiencies” during an investigation into the Brooks facility.

  • September 25

    - 60 products to the Canadian recall. - U.S. recalls products in California, Oregon, Michigan, Nebraska, Utah, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. - Alberta Health Services (AHS) investigate a total of eight E. coli cases - four in Edmonton, three in Calgary and one in central Alberta. The tests confirm Edmonton patients were infected by E. coli-tainted steaks bought at Costco. The CFIA is notified about the test results.

  • Spetember 26

    - The CFIA recalls Kirkland steaks packaged and sold September 4-7 from the Edmonton Costco. - It is confirmed the steaks were processed by XL Foods Inc. in Brooks. - Costco stores are asked by top doctors to stop using a meat-tenderizing machine that could potentially move E. coli bacteria from the surface of the meat to the centre. - Ten states are now affected by the The United States Food Safety and Inspection Service recall.

  • September 27

    AHS investigates a fourth case of E. coli in Calgary. AHS is investigating what caused E. coli poisoning in the Calgary patient and the central Alberta patient.

  • September 28

    The Canadian Food Inspection Agency suspends the operating licence of XL Foods' Brooks plant.

  • September 28

    The Canadian Food Inspection Agency suspends the operating licence of XL Foods' Brooks plant

  • September 28

    There was no initial reason to order a public recall or shut down the XL Foods facility in Brooks, say officials from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, defending their delay in alerting the public.

  • September 28

    The Canadian Food Inspection Agency comes under fire. Alberta Premier Alison Redford and NDP MP Linda Duncan question the delay in alert.

  • September 28

    The Canadian Cattlemen's Association says it's possible federal regulators will clear the XL Foods beef plant to resume operations by next week but the real challenge will be getting U.S. to accept beef exports from the plant again.

  • September 29

    The beef recall expanded to Co-Op, Metro and Walmart stores in Canada.

  • September 30

    The beef recall gets expanded to include dozens of cuts of meat.

  • September 30

    Alberta Premier Alison Redford says Alberta beef is safe and that the province breeds a high quality product with the highest standards possible.

  • October 1

    The Liberals and the NDP gang up on the Conservative government over the safety of Canada's meat supply.

  • October 2

    Beef recall is expanded again. This time to include dozens of additional products including roasts and sausages.

  • October 2

    The XL Foods beef recall gets expanded to B.C. More than 20 B.C. retail chains pull beef products from their shelves as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency continues to expand the recall from the plant.

  • October 2

    The XL foods beef recall becomes the biggest beef recall in Canadian history.

  • October 4

    XL Foods finally breaks silence, issuing a press release in which they took responsibility for the circumstances that led to the recalls. Not much was made available in terms of explanation or courses of action. Meanwhile, the recall is expanded yet again.

  • October 5

    Workers at the XL plant in Brooks speak out and what they have to say is not pretty. They describe high output demands, low staffing levels of disgusting hygiene issues. Meanwhile, the CFIA says the plant failed to maintain or update it's E. coli plan.

  • October 5

    Five new E. coli cases are linked to the tainted meat. Recall expands again.

  • October 8

    The beef recall, the largest in Canadian history, got much bigger with meats being pulled off shelves in Hong Kong.

  • October 9

    Federal inspectors begin a detailed assessment of the Brooks XL Foods Plant. The investigation would last weeks.

  • October 10

    This little baby starts making its rounds... Meanwhile, the union at the plant said it was a case of greed over health that led to the massive recall and claim the plant is nowhere near safe.

  • October 11

    A partial reopening of the plant is considered and Alberta Premier Alison Redford rejects calls for a provincial inquiry into the recall.

  • October 12

    The U.S. announces it will audit the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, as Quebec E. coli cases are linked to the Alberta plant and new E. coli cases are confirmed in B.C.

  • October 13

    2,000 workers at the XL Foods plant in Brooks are temporarily laid off.

  • October 14

    800 of the 2,000 workers temporarily laid off the day before are recalled so that CFIA can continue its investigation in the plant.

  • October 17

    JBS USA announce they're taking over the management of the plant and reserve the option to purchase XL Foods. Earlier that day, workers at the plant were laid off again, as the recall of beef products expands yet again.

  • October 17

    Also on the 17th, B.C. residents announce their intent to sue XL Foods over E. coli-tainted meat, as Brooks declares itself in a state of crisis due to the thousands of workers, many of them of foreign origin and of modest means, are left without income and in need of services.

  • October 17

    JBS USA announces it intends to work with the union and the community to fix the conditions in the plant that led to the massive beef recalls.

  • October 19

    The CFIA announces that some of the meat stored in warehouses after the recalls may end up on your dinner table once the recalls end. Meanwhile, remaining carcasses at the plant test negative for E. coli.

  • October 21

    Tons of meant from the XL Foods plant is tossed into Alberta landfills.

  • October 22

    Former XL Foods manager says CFIA inspectors require better training. Later that afternoon, it is announced that all workers would return to the plant on Oct. 29 for further training and to partially reopen the beleaguered plant.

  • October 25

    JBS CEO Bill Rupp addressed the Brooks plant, the community and the media and vowed that safety at the plant would be the number one priority, adding the culture at the plant would change for the better.

  • October 29

    Production at the XL Foods plant in Brooks resumes for the first time since E. Coli tainted meat from the plant resulted in the largest Canadian beef recall in history.

  • October 30

    R-CALF, a U.S. ranchers lobby group, asks U.S. courts to block the possible sale of the Brools XL Foods plant to JBS USA, which is at the time managing the plant but which has reserved the option to buy the Alberta facility, as well as some U.S. plants. (Getty)

  • Nov. 1

    Another case of E. coli is linked to the XL Foods Inc. plant in Alberta. The Public Health Agency of Canada says the case was in Quebec, bringing the total number of confirmed cases across the country to 17.

  • Nov. 4

    The Canadian Food Inspection Agency discloses that its staff observed a number of problems at XL Foods the previous week, as the plant worked to get back to normal operations. They included meat areas that weren't adequately cleaned and water sanitizer that wasn't maintained at a high enough temperature.

  • Nov. 14

    The total number of e-coli cases across the country linked to the XL Foods Brooks plant climbs to 18. The Public Health Agency of Canada said the new case is in Alberta.


Loading Slideshow...
  • Campylobacter Enteritis

    A common bacterial infection producing severe gastrointestinal upset that can hang around as long as two weeks. It's rarely fatal in healthy people. <strong>The culprits: </strong>Improperly slaughtered or processed meat not thoroughly cooked, contaminated vegetables, milk or water. Pets can also shed the bacteria through their "business." <strong>What it feels like: </strong>You'd pay closer attention to the flulike symptoms (fever, aches and pains) if you weren't running to the bathroom every 15 minutes of your life. <strong>Maybe you shouldn't have: </strong>Plucked that mass-processed pack of pork chops out of the "manager's special" bin. Also, if you really need to be told, leave seagulls alone. They're neither friendly nor tasty and are known to harbor higher concentrations of the bacteria. Common sense and decent kitchen cleanliness should protect you from needless downfall. <strong>Related: <a href="http://www.foodrepublic.com/2011/08/31/are-these-5-foods-trying-kill-you?utm_source=huffingtonpost.com&utm_medium=partner&utm_campaign=food-poisoning" target="_hplink">Are These 5 Foods Trying To Kill You?</a></strong> <em>Photo via Flickr user <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/stuartwebster/5829527553/" target="_hplink">StuartWebster</a></em>

  • Cholera

    Contrary to what literature might have you believe, there will be no love in the time of cholera, only misery, woe and lots of diarrhea. <strong>The culprits:</strong> Contaminated water and eating raw or undercooked seafood that was hanging out in that water. <strong>What it feels like:</strong> Being slowly dried in a dehydrator that looks surprisingly like your bathroom while your abdomen is squeezed by a giant godlike fist. You might just want to set up shop in there for a spell, the toxin in the cholera bacteria causes any water in your body to "release." Replenish as you might, it likely won't stay in there very long. Keep at it diligently, though, and you'll be fine in about a week. <strong>Maybe you shouldn't have:</strong> Splashed around in a stagnant portion of the Meekong Delta for so long, or eaten those Mexican oysters with quite as much gusto. <em>Photo via Flickr user <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/philosophygeek/3964899327/" target="_hplink">philosophygeek</a></em>

  • E. Coli Enteritis

    The black sheep of the food poisoning world, E. coli's the one with a strain that'll actually kill you regardless of treatment attempts. How subversive. <strong>The culprits</strong>: Escherichia coli, or E. for short, has one incredibly powerful strain: O157:H7, although other related strains can cause infection as well. This bacterium is found in mass-processed ground beef and on vegetables that were improperly cleaned or handled by contaminated fingers. <strong>What it feels like:</strong> You've been stabbed in the colon, which would explain the crippling cramps and other things that might happen if one were actually stabbed in the colon, including blood. Not that there's a "better" food poisoning to get, but this is one you really want to avoid. <strong>Maybe you shouldn't have:</strong> Eaten that rare burger of questionable origin while chugging raw milk in that crazy crowded public pool, all of which have been known to harbor the bacteria. <strong>Related: <a href="http://www.foodrepublic.com/2011/06/06/update-new-e-coli-culprit-europe?utm_source=huffingtonpost.com&utm_medium=partner&utm_campaign=food-poisoning" target="_hplink">Update: New E. Coli Culprit In Europe</a></strong> <em>Photo via Flickr user <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/khawkins04/5969315133/" target="_hplink">khawkins04</a></em>

  • Ciguatera (Fish Poisoning)

    An incurable disease caused by eating fish contaminated by coral algae toxins. A real doozy, with an estimated 50,000 cases each year. <strong>The culprits:</strong> Ciguatera is limited to fish of tropical origin. It's impossible to detect by seafood processors, and can't be killed by cooking or freezing. Live in fear of grouper, or continue on with your life with relatively minimal risk. <strong>What it feels like:</strong> At first, typical food poisoning symptoms may present, but the bigger problem with ciguatera is its severe and often irreversible neurological effects. These can include trouble sensing hot or cold, tingling "phantom limb" pain in the extremities and other symptoms that may be confused with anything from multiple sclerosis to heart failure. <strong>Maybe you shouldn't have: </strong>Hit that fried "mystery tropical fish" eating contest at that Margaritaville in that tropical location with your buddies. To minimize your risk of catching this seriously unfun bug, make sure you know what your fish is and if possible, where it came from. Larger fish from shallower waters in a tropical environment are your worst bet. <strong>Related: <a href="http://www.foodrepublic.com/2012/04/06/trouble-brewing-fda-and-sushi?utm_source=huffingtonpost.com&utm_medium=partner&utm_campaign=food-poisoning" target="_hplink">Trouble Brewing For The FDA. And, Sushi.</a> </strong> <em>Photo via Flickr user <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/alonsoinostrosa/4055075930/" target="_hplink">alonso_inostrosa</a></em>

  • Listeria

    The range of listeria infection, or listeriosis, lands you somewhere between asymptomatic and dead and can occur from eating or drinking basically anything that was grown, raised or milked. <strong>The culprits:</strong> Raw or improperly pasteurized dairy products, vegetables grown in contaminated soil (yup, it can live in soil), preserved and smoked meats (can be identified by a slippery or slimy film), canned and raw seafood and fresh fruit. <strong>What it feels like:</strong> A bad flu, although more serious complications like meningitis can occur in people with weakened immune systems, as well as in young children, pregnant women and the elderly. <strong>Maybe you shouldn't have:</strong> Eaten all those root vegetables straight from the ground without washing them right after milking your cow. I mean a hippie farmer's life is great, unless your land is rife with listeria. <em>Photo via Flickr user <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/9229859@N02/2575380447/" target="_hplink">bucklava</a></em>

  • Staphylococcus

    This is the picnic food poisoning everyone warns you about, especially you, dude who brought the mayo-choked potato salad (<a href="http://www.foodrepublic.com/2012/02/10/potato-salad-horseradish-recipe ?utm_source=huffingtonpost.com&utm_medium=partner&utm_campaign=food-poisoning" target="_hplink">try this one instead</a>). <strong>The culprits:</strong> The bacteria releases its toxins at the comfy incubator that is room temperature food, which gives staph food poisoning its signature cookout-ruining reputation. The worst part? Reheating contaminated food won't kill it off. Actually the worst part is the symptoms. <strong>What it feels like:</strong> Explosive, and not in a romantic feelings kind of way. Within an hour of ingesting contaminated food, both ends will be entirely occupied for up to a day. The good news is, once it's out, it's out and you can get right back to the picnic. Oh wait, it's over. <strong>Maybe you shouldn't have:</strong> Microwaved that leftover potato salad thinking no bug could possibly survive the ordeal. <em>Photo via Flickr user <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/stuart_spivack/274140418/" target="_hplink">stu_spivack</a></em>

  • Salmonella

    The bacteria that causes salmonellosis, or salmonella poisoning, has a serious reputation among poultry and their handlers, and BOY does it love hanging out on the stretches of counter you missed with the sanitizer. <strong>The culprits:</strong> Although eggs, processed chicken parts and other raw meat are particularly good at spreading the bacteria, pet reptiles and rodents are also carriers. Wash everything any dead or live animal comes in contact with and maybe don't allow live animals in the kitchen while you're cooking, period. <strong>What it feels like:</strong> Your small intestine betraying you entirely. Expect a week or so of your typical diarrhea, abdominal cramps and possibly a fever. <strong>Maybe you shouldn't have:</strong> Attempted your own Japanese-style chicken breast sashimi or let Shelly the turtle roam around willy-nilly on the cutting board. Especially before slicing said chicken sashimi. <em>Photo via Flickr user <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/vseehua/518875309/" target="_hplink">Casper Jen</a></em>

  • Shigellosis

    Similar to salmonella but yet so very different is shigella, which attacks the large intestine rather than the small. <strong>The culprit: </strong>You're going to love this -- human waste. While plenty of food-borne illness can be spread this way, particularly by catching a ride in food or water, many cases of shigellosis can be directly attributed to contact with... well, you know. It can also be resistant to antibiotics, so definitely practice safe sewage-wading. <strong>What it feels like: </strong>Salmonella, only with more blood. <strong>Maybe you shouldn't have:</strong> Taken on that blackout drunken dare to see what's really under that manhole by the creek, then gone straight to In-N Out. Just maybe. We live in a developed nation, you almost have to try to get this one. It's Darwinism, people. <em>Photo via Flickr user <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/nathanreading/6141237661/" target="_hplink">Nathan Reading</a></em>