OTTAWA - Canada's food-safety watchdog restored the operating licence Tuesday for a southern Alberta meat-packing plant at the centre of a massive recall of tainted beef, and also launched a review of the E. coli crisis that sickened at least 16 people.
But the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) acknowledged that its control over food safety inside the nation's slaughterhouses has its limits: it is still up to companies such as XL Foods to honour its own safety plans.
Forty-six federal inspectors didn't detect sanitation, hygiene and reporting deficiencies in the Brooks, Alta.-based facility until the outbreak of E. coli bacteria last month touched off one of the largest food recalls in Canadian history.
"They had a series of problems which we required corrective action on, and which we're seeking confidence that they've now addressed, and the same would hold if we uncovered a problem in other facilities," said Paul Mayers, vice-president of programs at the CFIA.
"Our daily inspection activities in other meat slaughter facilities across the country have not pointed to similar problems; our process of regular inspection and oversight continues to be diligently applied in every federally registered meat slaughter establishment across the country."
Officials emphasized the fact that E. coli outbreaks have decreased over the past decade, suggesting the food safety regime in Canada is continually improving.
Martine Dubuc, the vice-president of science at the agency, said it came down to XL Foods not communicating as regularly or as transparently as it was supposed to with the inspectors inside the plant.
The reporting issue is likely to come up as the CFIA convenes an expert advisory committee of the XL Foods incident, Dubuc said.
At XL Foods, production will ramp up gradually as inspectors scrutinize the work on the facility floor.
The agency says two additional inspectors will stay at the plant to monitor procedures and ensure strengthened food safety controls are being integrated into daily plant practices.
But Liberal MP Frank Valeriote criticized the Conservative government Tuesday over the qualifications of the XL Foods inspectors. Not all are fully trained in the "compliance verification system," which allows them to undertake in-depth assessments.
"Will the minister finally admit that the CFIA needs a third party comprehensive resource audit to properly allocate and develop training for its inspectors so this does not happen again, or is the minister waiting for a third crisis?" Valeriote said during question period.
It wasn't immediately clear how long it would take for the plant to get back up to full speed, but union officials say employees are being summoned for training and suggest production could resume on Monday.
The XL Foods plant has been closed since Sept. 27, the epicentre of an extensive beef recall fuelled by E. coli contamination that sickened 16 people, rocked the industry and rattled confidence in the agency, which is overseen by the federal government.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, who has been bombarded with opposition questions on a daily basis during question period since the plant was shut down, reiterated Tuesday that consumers are the government's first priority.
"There is a full complement of CFIA inspectors on the floor in that plant, some 20 per cent more than there was a few years ago," Ritz said.
"We will put a couple more people on the ground, extra eyes and ears, during the enhanced oversight that will be taking place in the short term."
In Edmonton, Alberta Premier Alison Redford welcomed news that the licence had been restored
"It's very good news," she said. "It's good news for Alberta beef producers and it is good news for the workers in Brooks. You will know, from the very beginning, when this news started that our primary objective was to get that plant reopened."
But the premier took heat in the legislature from the NDP for encouraging Albertans to continue eating beef while the beef recall dragged on.
"Will the premier admit that she jeopardized the health of Albertans by encouraging them to eat a product that was deemed unsafe for human consumption?" NDP Leader Brian Mason charged.
"I will not do that, but what I will do is say that the honourable member jeopardized the health of the beef industry by fear-mongering," Redford responded before being drowned out by applause from government members.
Millions of kilograms of meat have been returned to the plant from dozens of retailers across Canada and the United States, and the recalled beef is being dumped at a landfill.
What's more, the plant's operations are being taken over by JBS USA, an American subsidiary of a Brazilian-owned enterprise. The agreement provides the company an exclusive option to buy the Canadian and U.S. operations of XL Foods.
— With files from Dean Bennett in Edmonton.
Related on HuffPost:
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.
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.
Four consumers who bought Kirkland Signature brand strip loin grilling steaks from Edmonton Costco at 13650 50th St. N.E. later become ill.
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.
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.
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.
Fourteen more products are added to the recall list.
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.
The United States Food Safety and Inspection Service issues a public-health alert, while the CFIA adds another 37 products to the recall.
Another 47 products are added to the recall.
Another 10 products are added to the recall.
An in-depth review uncovers “several deficiencies” during an investigation into the Brooks facility.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency suspends the operating licence of XL Foods' Brooks plant.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency suspends the operating licence of XL Foods' Brooks plant
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.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency comes under fire. Alberta Premier Alison Redford and NDP MP Linda Duncan question the delay in alert.
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.
The beef recall expanded to Co-Op, Metro and Walmart stores in Canada.
The beef recall gets expanded to include dozens of cuts of meat.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford says Alberta beef is safe and that the province breeds a high quality product with the highest standards possible.
The Liberals and the NDP gang up on the Conservative government over the safety of Canada's meat supply.
Beef recall is expanded again. This time to include dozens of additional products including roasts and sausages.
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.
The XL foods beef recall becomes the biggest beef recall in Canadian history.
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.
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.
Five new E. coli cases are linked to the tainted meat. Recall expands again.
The beef recall, the largest in Canadian history, got much bigger with meats being pulled off shelves in Hong Kong.
Federal inspectors begin a detailed assessment of the Brooks XL Foods Plant. The investigation would last weeks.
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.
A partial reopening of the plant is considered and Alberta Premier Alison Redford rejects calls for a provincial inquiry into the recall.
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.
2,000 workers at the XL Foods plant in Brooks are temporarily laid off.
800 of the 2,000 workers temporarily laid off the day before are recalled so that CFIA can continue its investigation in the plant.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tons of meant from the XL Foods plant is tossed into Alberta landfills.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.