Agency president George Da Pont says Canadian inspectors asked for information from XL Foods Inc. on Sept. 6 about "critical points" where E. coli might become a problem, but didn't get an immediate response.
That was two days after E. coli was found by U.S. inspectors in a shipment of beef heading south of the border. Da Pont said Canadian inspectors made a similar discovery within hours in another batch of beef. Both were traced to the XL plant in Brooks, Alta., and a food safety inspection began, he said.
When asked at a news conference Wednesday why there wasn't an immediate recall of beef from the plant, Da Pont said it wasn't necessary.
"We had every bit of that product accounted for and under control and we immediately launched a food safety investigation, which is our normal procedure to ensure there were no other problems," he said.
He explained that the U.S. shipment was stopped at the border. Some of the second, tainted batch found by Canadian inspectors had gone to distribution, but "we immediately got it back. None of it had reached the retail level."
A recall of ground beef was eventually issued Sept. 16 and has been expanded numerous times since to include more than 1,500 other beef products across Canada and much of the United States.
No one from XL Foods returned phone calls Wednesday. The company has never put forward an official to answer questions about the bad beef.
Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz also appeared at the Calgary news conference, which was cut off by his aide after about 10 minutes — just as Da Pont started speaking about the delay in getting information from XL.
When asked later by reporters how many tonnes of beef have been affected by the recall, Da Pont described it as a "very significant" number, but was not able to provide a precise figure.
Da Pont said XL Foods was not doing proper "trend analysis" when it saw spikes the week before the E. coli was found. He also said a practice known as "bracketing" — in which shipments before and after one that contains a positive test are diverted from the line — wasn't followed properly.
Ritz, who toured the XL plant in Brooks, Alta., earlier Wednesday, said the government's "highest priority" is to keep the food Canadians eat safe.
"That is why the XL Foods plant will only resume operation when the president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has confirmed in writing to me that the health of Canadians is not at risk," Ritz said.
"Canadian consumers have always been, and will continue to be, the government of Canada's first priority when it comes to food safety," Ritz said.
Da Pont said one of the problems with current laws is that the CFIA has limited authority to compel companies to provide immediate documentation when asked.
That is being addressed in food safety legislation yet to be passed, he said.
The government has come under fire for its handling of the E. coli scare. There have been questions raised by opposition politicians and others about whether the food safety system is working and whether there are enough inspectors after government funding cuts.
The government says it has actually increased the number of food inspectors and strengthened protections.
In a release, the NDP took aim at Ritz's "feel-good beef tour"
"While Canadians' concerns grow and the E. coli illness numbers increase, the Agriculture Minister is busy sugar coating the beef recall ...." the release said.
In question period Wednesday, Liberal Leader Bob Rae asked how CFIA inspectors at the XL plant missed evidence that could have prevented people from getting sick.
"Why doesn't the CFIA have a firm threshold for when companies like XL Foods should divert or dispose of beef that tests positive for E. coli, something which could have prevented this outbreak?" Rae asked. "Why are the CFIA rules less stringent than what American regulators have said is needed to protect consumers?"
The beef bungle has so consumed the House of Commons in recent days that Speaker Andrew Scheer accepted an opposition call Wednesday to hold an emergency debate.
House of Commons rules limit emergency debates to important matters requiring urgent consideration, making them relatively uncommon.
In another development, a lawsuit has been filed that alleges XL Foods knew it had poor quality control and put profits above consumer safety.
The statement of claim against the meat-packer has not been proven in court and a judge must still determine if it may proceed as a class-action lawsuit.
An Edmonton man who got sick from E. coli after eating a steak on Sept. 5 traced to the plant is named as the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.
— With files from The Canadian Press in Ottawa and Edmonton
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