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Alberta plant failed to follow its own E. coli protocols

Cattle look out from their pen on a feedlot near Airdrie, Alta., on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2005.

JEFF MCINTOSH/THE CANADIAN PRESS

An Alberta meat processing plant that continued to churn out its product for more than three weeks after the discovery of a dangerous strain of bacteria early last month did not follow its own protocols for handling the outbreak.

Harpreet Kochhar, the executive director of western operations for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, told a news media teleconference on Friday that "our findings show that, although the company had an approved plan to deal with E. coli, that plan was not fully followed and was not being updated."

A day earlier, XL Foods said it took full responsibility for its tainted products. Its operations remain closed and Dr. Kochhar said they will not reopen until the agency is certain the bacteria are no longer an issue.

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The incident has prompted the largest recall of beef in Canadian history and left at least six people ill. Five of those cases were in Alberta, and officials in Newfoundland confirmed on Friday that one person in that province had been infected with the specific strain linked to the XL plant.

Dr. Kochhar did not rule out the possibility that more products may be added to the list of 1,800 products that have been recalled.

But questions remain about why meat continued to be processed so long after E. coli was discovered.

Dr. Kochhar said a letter was sent to XL on Sept. 6 and again on Sept. 7 giving the company until Sept. 8 to produce distribution and testing results. It was not until Sept. 10 and 11 that the company complied and, even then, he said, "it was not usable in a form that we could easily work on it."

The head of the CFIA told reporters earlier this week that the agency does not have the power to compel the speedy delivery of information from processing plants. Both CFIA officials and government representatives have said they are counting on a piece of legislation that is now before the Senate – a bill similar to one that died in 2008 when Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament – to make it easier to force companies to comply with such requests.

But Bob Kingston, president of the Agriculture Union, which represents Canadian meat inspectors, said his members have always been told that, when documentation is not handed over, they can pull the company's licence. In this case, Mr. Kingston said, the decision would have been left to senior management because of the high-profile nature of the incident.

CFIA officials said they did not move to shut down the plant on the first day that the information was not forthcoming because they did not realize the scope of the problem.

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"We didn't have that evidence to suggest that we had a problem in the plant," Karen McIntyre, the executive director of agrifood, meat and seafood safety at the CFIA, told the news conference. "That was the information that we were looking for in the documentation that we were requesting."

But the United States raised the alarm about a shipment of tainted meat stopped at the border on Sept. 3.

Gerry Ritz, the federal Minister of Agriculture, who oversees CFIA, appeared unable to answer opposition questions on Friday about why it took 14 days after the United States blocked imports from XL Foods on Sept. 13 for the company's licence to be suspended.

When asked about the delay in the House of Commons on Friday, Mr. Ritz replied: "The CFIA began acting on Sept. 4 [the day a first positive E. coli sample was discovered] and has continued to act based on science and information as it becomes available."

The government has come under fire for cutting tens of millions of dollars from CFIA's budget despite a listeriosis outbreak at a meat processing plant in Toronto in 2008 that killed 22 people. Mr. Ritz told the Commons that the number of inspectors at the XL plant has increased 20 per cent in the past few years. But production has also gone up sharply.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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