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.