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food safety

Contractors, employees, etc. come and go from XL Foods Lakeside Packers in Brooks.Larry MacDouga

For federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, the parameters were once so clear: No one was sick, so Alberta's E. coli outbreak was no big deal.

"No illnesses have been linked back to this particular strain of E. coli," he said Tuesday. "We have actually done a tremendous job."

Days later, Alberta has a brewing beef crisis on its hands. Nine people in the province have fallen ill, including four who ate steaks linked to the XL Foods slaughterhouse. Hundreds of products have been recalled from 10 provinces, two territories, 41 U.S. states and Puerto Rico. Some of the food was on store shelves as recently as Tuesday, while Mr. Ritz boasted about his department's performance.

The lucrative American market has shut out the plant, one of the three biggest in Canada, and 2,200 people are out of work indefinitely. Fearing a consumer backlash, Alberta Agriculture Minister Verlyn Olson felt it necessary to say he'd "have no hesitation walking into a store and buying beef."

All this comes amid changes, and looming cuts, to Canada's meat inspection program. But Mr. Ritz played down the ordeal. "The timeline actually backstops the fact that our system does work. There is no endemic situation out there from E. coli," he said Friday.

His own staff at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency paint a different picture: The system clearly didn't work. If it had, they say, the tainted meat wouldn't have left the plant.

The E. coli was first noticed by American officials during a border check on Sept. 3; a day later, the Canadians found it, too, in routine testing. They thought they'd caught the tainted meat, so production continued. On Sept. 12, the CFIA found more E. coli, expanded the investigation and, at the Americans' request, closed the border to XL Foods' American shipments. Only on Sept. 16 did it go public, issuing the first of several recalls.

On Thursday, the CFIA went a step further and shut down the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta. Workers are out of a job until company officials "have demonstrated that they have fully implemented CFIA's required corrective action," the agency said. XL Foods is co-operating with the CFIA, but didn't comment Friday.

CFIA adviser Brian Evans defended the response, saying the agency acted swiftly once the second batch of positive tests came back. Before that, the agency thought it had caught all the tainted meat. "Our actions were and continue to be guided by science-based evidence and a commitment to public health," Dr. Evans said Friday.

But critics say the CFIA increasingly leaves monitoring up to companies under its supervision rather than undertaking testing itself. New Democrat MP Nycole Turmel called that a "politically dangerous experiment." Federal layoffs could cut 100 jobs from the CFIA by 2015, according to the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

It's a system in overhaul, and PSAC spokesman Bob Jackson, a former meat inspector, said the government can't ignore illnesses and a slow response in the Brooks case. "I think that's kind of a reckless attitude in my opinion, to say, 'Well, nobody's got sick, so I guess it's okay,'" said Mr. Jackson, later adding: "We may not have seen the end of this story yet, by a long shot."