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Professor Lynn McMullen, department head of Meat Microbiology in the Agriculture Food and Nutritional Science at the University of Alberta samples a piece of beef strip loin with her grad students on Friday.Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

The federal agency responsible for protecting Canadians from food safety hazards will itself soon be under the microscope.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency confirms it is to be audited later this month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the first time in three years.

The agency says the USDA audit is to include a visit by U.S. inspectors to the XL Foods beef packer in Brooks, Alta. The plant has been involved in a massive meat recall prompted by an E. coli scare. A strain of the bacteria linked to XL has made at least 15 people in four provinces sick.

Guy Gravelle, a CFIA spokesman, said the audit has been planned for months and was not prompted by the recall.

But he explained that it could play a role in whether XL will be allowed to resume beef exports to the United States if the plant gets relicensed by the CFIA to fully operate again.

"If they have recently visited the facility and have deemed that it has met their standards for food safety and guidelines, I would imagine it would be fairly straightforward for them to accept the fact that it meets the standards that it requires before product is exported there," Mr. Gravelle said from Ottawa.

Canada suspended the XL plant's permit to export beef products into the United States on Sept. 13 at the request of the USDA because of E. coli contamination concerns.

The U.S. is a key market for the company. The XL Foods recall south of the border involved more than 1.1 million kilograms of beef sold by 23 grocery store chains in more than 30 states.

On Thursday, the CFIA announced the first stage of what it called a progressive restart of the plant that was shut down on Sept. 27.

The agency is allowing workers in the plant to cut meat from 5,100 beef carcasses under increased supervision and tougher E. coli testing standards, but no meat can leave the facility.

Gravelle said processing has started; however, test results from the meat won't be available until early next week.

The CFIA has given no timeline on when the plant might be allowed to accept live cattle again or ship beef products to market.

"When and if the plant's operating licence is reinstated, XL Foods may request access to the U.S. market again," he said.

"At that time, the CFIA will work with U.S. officials to determine if [XL Foods] meets export requirements."

The USDA audit may involve visits to other beef plants, as well as poultry and pork facilities.

Canada exported more than $4-billion worth of beef and pork in 2010, much of it to the United States.

The final USDA report from its 2009 CFIA audit found weaknesses in the ability of Canadian inspectors to verify consistent sanitation and hazard protection in some slaughter plants, but noted the agency was planning to take action to deal with the shortcomings.

It also said agency inspectors and supervisors were routinely not following procedures for monitoring sanitation controls as laid out by the CFIA.

"Principal areas of weakness included the inability of inspection personnel to implement consistent sanitation and hazard analysis and critical control points verification procedures," says the report, which was sent to the CFIA in October 2010.

"And, more significantly, [there is] the lack/loss of consistent supervisory reviews to identify weaknesses in inspection performance when it occurred."

The report did find that the Canadian inspection system adequately verified testing for generic E. coli.

The report does not name where inspectors went during the audit, but noted they visited 16 sites across Canada, including a beef slaughter facility in southern Alberta.

The USDA report said the goal of its 2009 audit was to ensure that Canada continued to maintain food safety equivalent to that of the U.S.

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