The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has temporarily shut one of the country's largest meatpacking plants after contaminated beef products, that were distributed across Canada and the United States, sickened several people.
The operators of privately held XL Foods' plant in Brooks, Alberta have not done enough to prevent contamination by E. coli bacteria, which has led to numerous product recalls this month, the CFIA said on Friday.
Nine people in Alberta have fallen ill after eating meat tainted with the bacteria, including four who ate steaks bought at a Costco Wholesale Corp store in Edmonton, Alberta, according to the province's health ministry.
The government agency said it was in control of all products at the plant, which will not resume operations until XL fully implements CFIA's required corrective actions.
CFIA has not confirmed who supplied the tainted meat related to the illnesses.
XL Foods said on Wednesday there was no definitive link between its products and the cases of illness. The company's officials did not return messages for comment Friday.
On Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service expanded a public health alert about potentially tainted beef from the plant, that may have made its way to U.S. grocery stores in more than 30 states, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Safeway. XL Foods is recalling the products, which include steaks, roasts and ground beef.
The United States halted imports of beef products from the XL Foods plant on Sept. 13.
VOLUNTARY RECALL Beginning in mid-September, XL Foods voluntarily recalled more than 250 beef products made at the plant after positive findings of E. coli. CFIA said it would recall more products over the next few days as it traces their movement.
E. coli bacteria can cause serious and potentially life-threatening illnesses, and is often present at slaughter plants.
Processors are required to monitor for higher-than-normal detection rates and to take additional measures as necessary.
The CFIA's review of the plant's food safety controls found XL Foods could not prove that it regularly updated its plan to control E. coli, the agency said.
Opposition legislators accused the Canadian government on Friday of acting too slowly and of contributing to the problem by cutting food inspector positions earlier this year in an aggressive round of budget cuts.
But Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, who oversees CFIA, said the government has added inspectors, and employs 46 on a daily basis at the Brooks plant.
Dr Brian Evans, the CFIA's chief food safety officer, defended the agency's response to the tainted meat. CFIA announced XL Foods' first product recall on Sept. 16, two weeks after CFIA inspectors detected the bacteria in XL products.
"We were, 24 hours, pedal to the metal, in the plant through the weekend trying to satisfy ourselves that consumers were not being put at risk," Evans told reporters.
By Sept. 16, CFIA decided it needed to take action and some products were recalled.
XL is one of the two biggest beef processors in Canada, with the other giant being U.S. agribusiness Cargill Ltd.
The shutdown of XL's Brooks plant will weaken Western Canadian cattle prices, and limit farmers' options for cattle sales, said Alberta rancher Travis Toews.
"If this situation persists for any length of time, cattle will get backed up," he said, adding it was fortunate there weren't large numbers of cattle headed for slaughter at this time of year.
Cargill spokesman Mike Martin said the company was confident its own plants had procedures in place to minimize risks of food-borne illnesses.
XL is owned by Canadian company Nilsson Brothers Inc, which also owns auction marts, ranches and other farm businesses in Alberta.
Canada is the sixth-largest beef and veal exporter in the world.