The Alberta meat plant at the centre of a Canada-wide E. coli outbreak says it's ready to get back to work.
XL Foods has asked the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for permission to resume operations, agency officials said Monday. The plant in Brooks, Alta., had its licence suspended indefinitely Sept. 27, about two weeks after the first two cases of E. coli were identified in Alberta and more than three weeks after routine testing identified E. coli in some of the plant's meat.
A phased assessment to determine whether XL Foods is safe to operate begins Tuesday.
"The company has indicated to us in a written request for reinstatement of their licence," said Harpreet Kochhar, executive director of the CFIA's Western operations.
Food inspection officials would not estimate how long that assessment would take or what the possible consequences might be for the company.
The same strain of E. coli O157:H7 has sickened 11 people across Canada. Public health officials in British Columbia confirmed Monday that a Nanaimo man fell ill in mid-September. He was hospitalized and has since recovered. Of the previous cases of illness, seven were in Alberta, two in Quebec and one in Newfoundland and Labrador.
"Considerable amounts" of potentially tainted Canadian meat made their way to more than 20 countries from the XL Foods plant, CFIA meat inspection director Richard Arsenault said Monday. He added that all these countries have been informed and have gotten rid of all affected products.
"This is a very large plant. It exported to a number of countries, and there are considerable amounts of product that were exported out of Canada," he said. "Immediate action was taken to communicate with those countries. Our understanding now is that those products have all been identified – we have our hands wrapped around them, so to speak – and they're in the process of being brought back or disposed."
Hong Kong's Centre for Food Safety issued a warning that some raw beef from XL had been brought into the region and a small amount distributed to local shops. It suspended the import of XL products made on or after Aug. 24 and ordered distributors to recall the products. The centre "will continue liaising with the Canadian authorities and closely monitor the situation," the statement reads. "Relevant control measures will be reviewed when further information is obtained."
The U.S. Food Safety Inspection Service nearly tripled its calculation of the amount of potentially contaminated beef imported from XL. The agency now estimates that 1.134 million kilograms of steaks, roasts, ground beef and trim made their way into the United States. The previous estimate was less than 404,000 kilograms.
XL Foods has undergone eight foreign audits in the past four years, Dr. Kochhar said. "Any issue, if there was any identified, [has] been corrected and the company was on the exportation list for many different countries."
The "pre-resumption of operation inspection," Dr. Kochhar said, will be a phased approach to see whether the plant has "addressed deficiencies" in its food-safety practices. Problems identified in a "corrective action" notice include employees touching contaminated meat without cleaning their hands properly and "water nozzles clogged in the primary carcass wash area."
If the plant passes an initial walk-through inspection, it will gradually resume "limited operation" under inspectors' supervision.
"What we are planning to do out there is to actually verify the state of readiness of the plant … to see if maintenance issues have been rectified, any sanitation issues," Dr. Kochhar said. "The next step would be to see the readiness in terms of a limited operation and, accordingly, move step by step forward."