Canadian food inspectors could not immediately get key information from packer XL Foods after detecting E. coli bacteria in its beef, adding to a nearly two-week delay in launching one of the country's largest-ever meat recalls.
Authorities learned about the presence of E. coli O157:H7 in beef produced at the XL Foods plant at Brooks, Alta. from U.S. authorities on Sept. 4, triggering a Canadian investigation.
Two days later, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) asked XL Foods for information on product testing and distribution, but the request was not fulfilled until Sept. 11.
"There was a delay in getting it," CFIA president George Da Pont said in a press conference Wednesday at an agency laboratory in Calgary. "We have limited authority to compel immediate documentation."
Officials from Edmonton-based XL could not immediately be reached for comment.
Five illnesses have now been linked to the tainted beef. CFIA had not publicly linked any cases of O157:H7-related illness to the consumption of XL's beef until last Saturday (Sept. 29).
One of the provisions in draft legislation to make foods safer for Canadians would give the CFIA more authority, Da Pont said.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, who oversees the CFIA, said the agency had done "a terrific job" dealing with the tainted beef.
"In the dark"
Meat from the XL plant was not recalled until Sept. 16, almost two weeks after the CFIA knew of the contamination. CFIA did not recall meat earlier because the products originally flagged had not made it onto store shelves, Da Pont said.
Since then, the recall has expanded several times and now involves more than 1,500 products, including ground beef, roasts and steaks. The plant at Brooks, about 180 km east of Calgary, was closed last Thursday as the CFIA suspended its operating license.
O157:H7, a strain of E. coli that can cause sickness or even death, is widely present in meat-processing plants, and regulators require packers to control the bacteria within certain levels. E. coli can be killed by thoroughly cooking meat.
The lag between detecting the bacteria and recalling tainted beef is not unusual and does not point to poor performance by CFIA, said Rick Holley, a food microbiologist at University of Manitoba.
But the sweeping recall points to a shortcoming in the Canadian food-safety system - not enough understanding of organisms that cause food-borne illnesses and a lack of preventative action, he said.
"We're really walking around in the dark. Food safety in Canada is more by accident than by design."
A CFIA official said Tuesday that the XL Foods plant may reopen later this week, once the company complies with six requests for corrective action.
Ritz added Wednesday in Calgary that the XL plant "will only resume operation when (Da Pont) has confirmed in writing to me that the health of Canadians is not at risk."
E. coli cases rise in Sask.
Eleven people have recently become sick in Alberta due to E. coli bacteria; five of those were confirmed to be connected to beef from XL Foods.
Neighbouring Saskatchewan reported 13 cases of E. coli infection in September; the province's health ministry said it usually records zero to four such cases in that month.
Saskatchewan health officials are testing for a link to the XL recall and expect lab results "within the next few days."
The XL meat recall is the biggest in Canada since at least 2008, when 22 people died after eating deli meat from a Maple Leaf Foods plant.
The latest recall affected food stores across Canada and most U.S. states and include Wal-Mart, Costco, Safeway and Loblaw.
The plant's temporary closure has left ranchers with fewer options to sell their cattle, and prompted rival Cargill to boost production at its own Alberta beef packing plant at High River, about 40 km south of Calgary.
Prices of cattle for slaughter have dropped sharply since the plant closed, said Glenn Tait, a board member with the National Farmers Union at Meota, Sask., about 35 km north of North Battleford.
"This sudden and unpredictable loss of income may well wipe out our 2012 profits," he said.
Federal opposition legislators have alleged that sweeping budget cuts by the government this year contributed to the spread of contaminated products.
CFIA has said that 46 agency staff work full-time at the Brooks plant, an increase over three years ago.
-- Rod Nickel
writes for Reuters from Winnipeg. Includes files from AGCanada.com Network staff.
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