04/28/2015 04:52 EDT | Updated 08/01/2015 01:00 EDT

Feces, mould and salmonella found by inspectors before 2014 Country Ribbon licence suspension

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency identified serious concerns about sanitation and the safety of chicken produced by a Newfoundland processing operation before suspending the company's licence last fall.

CBC News used access to information to obtain documents that shed light on problems found by federal inspectors at the Country Ribbon facility in St. John's.

The 600 pages of records show that, before the suspension, CFIA inspectors found feces on chicken parts and mould and dried blood on equipment.

Country Ribbon operates a large-scale processing operation near Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John's.

The facility employs more than 300 people and processes more than 10 million chickens annually.

The whole operation ground to a halt over the October Thanksgiving weekend in 2014, when the CFIA suspended its licence. 

'Improvements' needed

At the time, top Country Ribbon officials said the company's licence was suspended because it wasn't making improvements required by CFIA quickly enough.

"We have worked hard and diligently over the last year to make a number of improvements, which we have successfully made," Country Ribbon CEO Ian Pittman said in October.

"Unfortunately not all of the improvements that were required by CFIA were able to be complete by a specific deadline and those improvements relate to the written part of our HACCP program and the administration of it. Things like monitoring, things like root cause analysis, things like record keeping, are the issues that we need to improve upon." 

According to documents obtained by CBC News, CFIA did want Country Ribbon to improve its hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP) program.

But correspondence between the company and the food inspection agency shows that there were also real problems on the production floor.

For example, one CFIA report detailed a series of problems on Aug, 1, 2014:

- Machinery not working properly to effectively eviscerate carcasses and prevent contamination;

- Broken intestines left in the birds, employees removing by hand excessively leading to cross-contamination;

- All racks on the evisceration floor overflowing;

- Condemned carcasses piling up on the re-hang table, cross-contamination of birds on the line occurring.

As trouble mounted, a CFIA inspector stopped slaughter operations at the plant.

Country Ribbon began processing chickens again after company promised to fix the problems. But in the days and weeks that followed inspectors continued to find other issues, such as mould on fixtures and equipment and unacceptably high levels of salmonella.

One day a random inspection found fecal contamination on a chicken thigh.

"The inspector had all parts condemned from the contaminated pan," the inspection report noted.

Weeks later another inspection said fecal matter was found on a chicken wing.

Country Ribbon slow to respond

The federal agency ordered corrective actions when inspectors found problems, but according to documents obtained through access to information, Country Ribbon was slow to respond.

Partially-redacted CFIA correspondence written Aug. 28 underscored the agency's frustration.

That letter dealt with air flow issues at Country Ribbon but "this is a small piece of the overall problems at this establishment," a CFIA official wrote.

"The largest issue which has yet to be addressed is the overall sanitation of the plant whether it be on preop, lack of cleaning, an overall lack of oversight by management," the email noted.

"This is exemplified by continuous, recurring CARS (corrective action requests) for sanitation, outstanding CARS in excess of 10 months."

The CFIA email also pointed to problems on the evisceration line.

"There have been times when the situation has been out of control. Our inspectors have had to step in and stop the line because food safety was compromised."

He went on to say "this may be a turning point as to the future of this operation."

Just over a month later, CFIA suspended Country Ribbon's licence to operate.

In its notice to the company, the agency wrote: "it is reasonable to believe that public health will be endangered… if the establishment is allowed to continue operating."

The company's licence was suspended on a Friday. It was reinstated three days later, after Country Ribbon gave the agency a plan detailing how it would fix the problems.

There was no recall of Country Ribbon products associated with the CFIA action.

'We have met all requirements'

Country Ribbon declined interview requests, but responded by email to CBC News.

"There is no new information to add since the resolution of the matter last fall," company CEO Ian Pittman wrote.

"We have met all requirements set out by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and remain committed to continuing to provide safe, quality products to our customers. We express thanks to our employees, customers, and the community for their loyalty and support."

The CFIA — the federal agency that regulates food safety — also said no one was available to do an interview.

In a statement, the CFIA directed CBC News to its website, where a notice says Country Ribbon is now fulfilling the requirements of its licence.