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E. Coli Strain Found In XL Beef Turns Up In Newfoundland

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The E. coli strain investigated in XL Foods beef has been found in Newfoundland. (Alamy) | Alamy

OTTAWA - Health officials are investigating whether a person who got sick from E. coli in Newfoundland is the sixth case to be linked to an Alberta meat plant at the centre of a major beef recall.

Newfoundland and Labrador's Health Department said Friday a person in the eastern part of the province was infected by a specific strain of the bacteria being investigated at XL Foods Inc.

The person has recovered and officials are still trying to determine the source of the E. coli.

The Alberta government has reported that five people fell ill last month from E. coli linked to steaks processed at the XL Foods plant in Brooks, southeast of Calgary.

Tests are being done to track down the source of E. coli in four other cases in Alberta, 13 in Saskatchewan and one in British Columbia.

E. coli was first detected in the plant on Sept. 4, but it took 12 days for the first of numerous public alerts to be issued, leading to the recall of more than 1,800 XL Foods beef products across Canada and much of the United States.

It then took nearly two weeks for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to shut down the plant on Sept. 27.

Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz came under opposition fire in the House of Commons again Friday. The NDP has asked him to apologize to Canadians and resign.

Ritz repeated that food safety remains a priority for the Harper government. He has said the XL plant will not be allowed to reopen until investigators are satisfied it is safe.

Government officials released a few more details Friday about the ongoing investigation into the plant.

Harpreet Kochhar with the Public Health Agency of Canada told reporters XL Foods had a plan in place to battle E. coli, but wasn't following or updating that plan.

He said the plan, known as a hazard analysis and critical control points plan, is a regulatory requirement.

"When we looked into it in depth, we found that there was an existing plan but the company was not following that plan accordingly."

The public health agency later issued a press release citing insufficient record keeping related to monitoring and equipment maintenance, as well as deficiencies in sampling techniques and procedures.

It earlier revealed the company was not doing proper "trend analysis'' when it saw spikes the week before the E. coli was found. A practice known as "bracketing," in which shipments before and after one that contains a positive test are diverted from the line, also wasn't followed properly.

The agency further listed 10 maintenance and sanitation infractions, but said the issues would not typically contribute to E. coli contamination. Inspectors found some XL staff were not wearing beard nets, some did not follow proper washing procedures and the thermometer on the evisceration table was not working properly.

The agency said no single factor led to E. coli contamination at the plant.

"The combination of several deficiencies could have played a role," said the news release. "By themselves, each of these findings would not typically signal an immediate concern during the course of normal inspection activities."

In the early days of the outbreak, XL Foods wasn't quick to hand over important information to investigators.

Officials said they requested documents from XL Foods by Sept. 8, but the company missed the deadline by two days and the paper it did hand over was unusable. XL Foods provided officials with better information starting Sept. 11, but more requests had to be made later.

Karen McIntyre, an executive director with the public health agency, said officials didn't have enough of a reason to down the plant when the company withheld the information.

"At that time, the important point was we didn't have any illnesses. We didn't have that evidence to suggest that we had a problem in the plant. That was the information that we were looking for in the documentation that we were requesting."

A lawsuit was filed this week in Edmonton against XL Foods. It claims the company was aware of its poor quality control and put profits above consumer safety. An Edmonton man who got sick after eating an XL steak is named as the plaintiff in the case.

Two law firms in Alberta and one in Ontario are applying together to have the claim certified as a class-action, representing not only people who got sick but those who simply want refunds for meat they had to throw away.

The lawsuit contains allegations that have not been proven in court.

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