The Alberta meat processing plant at the centre of a dangerous bacterial outbreak is permitted to resume limited operations but the agency responsible for food safety in Canada says no meat will leave the doors until it is proven fit for consumption.
Harpreet Kochhar, the executive director of western operations for the Canadian Food Inspection agency (CFIA), told reporters on Thursday that the agency will allow XL Foods in Brooks, to proceed to the next stage of a review process.
The plant has been been shut down since Sept. 27 - more than three weeks after the E. coli bacteria was first detected at the facility and more than two weeks after the Americans said no more beef from XL would be permitted to cross the border.
"Beginning today, XL Foods will be permitted to resume limited in-house cutting and further processing under strict, enhanced oversight," said Dr. Kocchar. "The plant will not be permitted to resume normal operations until the CFIA confirms in writing that it is safe to do so."
More than 5,000 beef carcasses have been sitting untouched in the plant since the plug was pulled. More than 99 per cent of those carcasses have tested negative for the bacteria and they can now be processed under the eye of food inspectors.
"This will enable CFIA experts to carefully observe the plant's food safety controls in action," said Dr. Kocchar.
But, he said, the meat will remain under CFIA detention and the product will not be allowed to leave the premises until the agency has confirmed to Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz that the plant controls are effectively managing E. coli risks. If the inspectors not any problems with the food-safety controls, the plant's licence to operate will again be suspended, said Dr. Kocchar.
The decision to allow the resumption of some meat cutting at the plant followed a day-long review at XL on Tuesday by CFIA inspectors. Dr. Kochhar said that review took a close look at the company's efforts to address previously identified food safety issues including maintenance and sanitation deficiencies.
The team verified that the plant has been appropriately cleaned and sanitized, he said. The company had also fixed problems related to condensation, drainage problem and ice building on freezer doors.
More than 1,800 products have been recalled as a result of the outbreak and at least 12 people across Canada have fallen ill after eating meat processed at XL, most of them in Alberta.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 which represents workers at plant says its members were fearful of raising concerns about food safety and managers refused to discuss the problems.
The union has called for a public inquiry into the handling of the bacterial outbreak, as well as whistleblower protection for workers who observe lapses in contamination control.
Workers were apparently concerned about the quality of the product they were processing but say the production line was moving too fast for them to exercise proper cleanliness. In addition, he say, there was inadequate training, especially among the large number of temporary foreign workers hired by XL.