09/28/2012 02:07 EDT | Updated 11/27/2012 05:12 EST

Food agency defends delayed beef recall after E. coli alert

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is defending its decision not to issue immediate recall on beef products coming out of the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta.

Officials say they were alerted on Sept. 4 to a positive E. coli test in beef shipped to the United States taken the day before, but recalls in Canada didn’t start until Sept. 16.

Canadian inspectors also had a positive E. coli test in a shipment that went to a small plant in Calgary on Sept. 4, which was part of the same shipment out of the XL Foods plant in Brooks.

The CFIA’s Dr. Brian Evans said at a press conference Friday morning that because the shipment was contained and didn't make it to the retail level they didn’t feel a need to issue an immediate recall, instead they went to the plant in Brooks to conduct a in-depth review.

The review determined deficiencies that suggested they needed to take further action, which led to a series of countrywide recalls.

"I believe we've acted responsibly once we had evidence that was suggestive," said Evans.

"We've acted aggressively based on a precautionary basis, and we will continue to review our activities into the future, obviously, to determine if in hindsight there was anything that we missed that might have expedited that. At this time I'm not aware that that exists, but we will do a lessons learned for sure."

CFIA has suspended the operating licence of XL Foods at the Brooks plant that has been linked to more than 250 beef products for fear of E. coli contamination.

"The company took initial steps to ensure the safety of food being produced and at the time committed to additional steps to deal with all issues and prevent recurrence," the agency said.

"However, based on information provided by XL Foods Inc. on Sept. 26, as well as through CFIA inspector oversight, the CFIA has determined that these deficiencies have not been completely corrected. To date, the company has not adequately implemented agreed upon corrective actions and has not presented acceptable plans to address longer-term issues."

Products at the plant are being held by the CFIA to be tested for the bacteria, the agency announced late Thursday night.

The plant will not be able to resume operations until corrective measures imposed by the CFIA have been undertaken.

XL Foods also expanded its voluntary recall to all raw meat produced on Aug. 24, 27, 28, 29 and Sept. 5, the CFIA said in a release. The agency said it will alert consumers as additional products are identified, and more recalls are expected in the next few days.

"This will lead to a series of recall announcements over the next few days as implicated products are identified and traced," the CFIA said in a release.

Edmonton E. coli cases linked to steaks

Alberta Health Service officials announced earlier this week that four people in Edmonton got sick from E. coli after eating Kirkland brand striploin steaks purchased at a Costco outlet in Edmonton.

Officials were able to determine the steaks were related to the illnesses because it was a specific strain of E. coli.

All four people have recovered, according to Alberta Health's Bart Johnson.

CFIA said the steaks came from the XL Foods plant in Brooks, but health officials aren't sure whether the E. coli came from a metal meat tenderizing machine used at the Costco store or the XL plant.

The store has said it would no longer use the tenderizing machine.

Health officials have reported nine E. coli cases in Alberta over the past week, but investigators are still trying to determine the source in five of them — four cases in Calgary and one in central Alberta.

More than 250 meat products have already been pulled from Canadian stores after the company initiated a voluntary recall.

- Related link:CFIA's List of Recalled Products

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which banned imports of beef from the company, extended its public health alert about beef from the company's Lakeside plant to stores in 30 states, including retail giant Wal-Mart.

The Brooks, Alta., plant employs more than 2,200 unionized workers.

Brooks Mayor Martin Shields hopes the plant is up and running again soon, as it has a large payroll in the town.

"It's obviously a situation where something needs to be cleaned up or done to get the licence reinstated, and I'm sure that XL beef will — as a company that's worked hard to provide a good product — will do that."

Recall questions in Parliament

In the House of Commons' question period Friday, NDP Deputy Leader Libby Davies said the suspension of XL's licence was "a clear indication that the Conservative policy of a self-policing industry has failed."

"It's put XL workers out of work, it has failed public safety and it's hurt the industry overall. Pulling front-line CFIA inspectors was wrong," Davies said.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz denied his department has cut inspectors. "This industry she's talking about had the help of 46 inspection staff on a daily basis in that plant," Ritz told MPs.

In response to a later question, Ritz said the timeline of the CFIA's response to the e-coli report is proof the system works. "There is no endemic situation out there from E. coli. E-coli exists across the country on a daily basis. Having said that, this government is focused on food safety. We want to go beyond what consumers expect," Ritz said.

The meat recall also came up in the House of Commons during question period Thursday.

NDP agriculture critic Malcolm Allen said Canadians are worried and blamed recent cuts to the CFIA for the late recall, saying "the lack of details is disturbing."

"I doubt whether the minister knows Sept. 4 from Sept. 16, but what we do know is that American inspectors caught that contaminated meat, not Canadian inspectors, and that is a failure on the government's part," he said.