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e. coli outbreak

Cows graze near the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Managers of an Alberta meat-packing company where the outbreak of a dangerous food-borne bacteria has prompted a massive recall of beef say the problems have been rectified.

Brian Nilsson, the CEO of the XL Foods in Brooks, said Tuesday that the meat packer has taken all of the actions demanded by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency after last month's discovery of E. coli.

"All the members of the XL community deeply regret the illnesses caused by the consumption of beef products," Mr. Nilsson said in a news release. "Our thoughts are with the affected people at this time."

At least 11 people across Canada have fallen ill as a result of eating meat processed at XL, most of them in Alberta, and the outbreak has prompted the biggest recall of beef in Canadian history.

Inspectors from the CFIA were deciding Tuesday whether the plant's production lines can be restarted. They have been shut down since Sept. 26 – more than three weeks after the bacteria was first detected.

Corrective measures required by the CFIA highlight a long list of sloppy practices by the meat processor.

Among them: Refrigerators were not being cleaned according to the company's own specifications; a drain was emitting a foul odour; sanitizer was dripping onto product; the evisceration table thermometer was not functioning properly; some employees were not wearing beard nets; employees were sorting trimmed beef and then touching contaminated meat without following the appropriate washing procedures.

In addition, the company's own control plan was not fully implemented or regularly updated. There was a lack of written direction provided to employees about the steps to be followed after a positive test for E. coli; positive samples were inconsistently analyzed to detect trends; there were deficiencies in sampling techniques and there was insufficient record-keeping.

The CFIA says it first asked for documentation from XL related to its testing results and product distribution when the bacteria was initially noticed on Sept. 4. It followed up with written requests on Sept. 6 and Sept. 7. But it was not until Sept. 10 and Sept. 11 that the company complied, and, even then, the documents were not delivered in a usable form.

George Da Pont, the head of the CFIA, told reporters last week that his agency does not yet have the power to compel the speedy delivery of information. He and members of the Conservative government, including Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, have said legislation now before the Senate would give the CFIA more power in that regard.

But the union that represents food inspectors, as well as the opposition New Democrats, point to Section 13 of the existing Meat Inspection Act, which requires the production of any document requested by any inspector.

Malcolm Allen, the NDP agriculture critic, said of the CFIA: "I think what we have is an organization that, from top to bottom, isn't aware of what it is capable of doing."