OTTAWA - The federal government has launched a review of the E. coli outbreak last fall that sickened 18 people and led to the largest beef recall in Canadian history.

The review is to focus on what contributed to the outbreak of the potentially deadly bacteria at the XL Foods Inc. plant in Brooks, Alta.

It will also look at how well the Canadian Food Inspection Agency performed, including why tainted meat was distributed to retailers and sold to consumers.

Agriculture Canada said the review will be conducted by an independent panel of experts who are to hand in a report with recommendations to improve food safety.

"We take the safety of Canada's food supply very seriously and we remain committed to the continuous improvement of Canada's strong food safety systems," Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said in a news release Friday evening.

At the time of the E. coli outbreak the XL Foods plant was the largest Canadian-owned beef slaughter facility in the country.

It is now owned and operated by JBS Food Canada, a subsidiary of JBS South America.

The federal government said the review panel includes recognized scientific, public health and meat industry experts.

They include Ronald Lewis, former chief veterinary officer for British Columbia; Dr. Andre Corriveau, chief public health officer for the Northwest Territories; and Ronald Usborne, a former executive with Caravelle Foods.

The review is to look at the design, implementation and oversight of food safety controls at the plant, including CFIA inspection policies, and how well testing information was shared by the company, inspectors and U.S. regulators.

The panel is to review the effectiveness of E. coli prevention protocols, including the ability to detect problems, recall beef products and how well the agency conducted followup investigations.

Federal documents have shown that CFIA inspectors issues six warnings to XL Foods about conditions in the plant between January 2012 and when the plant was temporarily shut down in September.

Some of the problems noted included improper sanitization of equipment, condensation dripping onto beef carcasses and containers overflowing with unsanitary water.

The agency said all of the problems cited were dealt with before the first cases of E. coli were found in beef produced at the plant.

The recall involved millions of tonnes of beef packaged in more than 2,000 different products across Canada and in many U.S. states.

The CFIA restored the plant's operating licence on Oct. 23 and it was allowed to resume exports of beef products to the United States in December.

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  • While most strains of E. coli are harmless, the Public Health Agency Of Canada warns that some strains including E. coli O157: H7, can make people sick, and in serious complications can include kidney failure.

  • Symptoms include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting and fever that is generally less than 38.5˚C/101˚F and tend to last for five to seven days.

  • High risk individuals include the very young, elderly, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems.

  • Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which can be fatal, can develop in around 5 to 10 per cent of those who get sick from E. coli O157:H7 overall and about 15 per cent of young children and the elderly. Symptoms of HUS vary. Some people have seizures or strokes and some need blood transfusions and kidney dialysis. Others live with side effects such as permanent kidney damage.

  • Proper hygiene including hand washing and safe food handling and preparation practices are recommended to prevent the illness.

  • While E. coli is generally associated with ground meat, Alberta Health Services warns that the bacteria can also be found in foods including poultry, pork, cheese, sprouts, lettuce, yogurt, and unpasteurized milk and fruit juices and advises Albertans to take precaution.