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Agriculture Minister to visit meat plant at the centre of tainted beef storm

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on April 23, 2012.


Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz is paying a visit to the Alberta meat processing plant at the centre of the storm over tainted beef.

The XL Foods slaughterhouse in Brooks, Alta., that he will visit Wednesday is where food safety investigators are seeking answers to an E. coli outbreak that has spawned a massive recall of beef.

Upward of 1.5 million pounds of beef – comprising more than 1,500 products – are being recalled as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency probes how cow feces on meat failed to be detected before it was too late.

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The contamination wasn't found for over a week, and another 12 days passed before any public notice. Amid questions about his agency's response, Mr. Ritz hasn't appeared in the House of Commons this week.

XL Foods co-CEOs Brian and Lee Nilsson have not commented, and the company has stopped returning messages.

Meanwhile, in Alberta on Tuesday, officials have confirmed one new case of E. coli, bringing the province's total to 10. Five of these have been linked to meat from the XL Foods plant.

Mr. Ritz's home province of Saskatchewan says reported E. coli cases jumped this September – there were 13, when numbers typically range from zero to four – but authorities are still investigating whether any are linked to the recalled beef.

The Conservative government has taken a lot of flak in Parliament over the outbreak.

Officials say the Agriculture Minister couldn't make Question Period Tuesday because he was meeting with constituents in Saskatchewan. On Monday, they say, he was opening a water-treatment plant in Battleford, Sask.

Production staff working in the XL Foods plant have been told not to return on Wednesday, but have been asked to check back for a possible reopening Thursday. Maintenance staff are being asked to continue working.

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That would mark one week since a staggered plant shutdown – they didn't work Tuesday, Sept. 25, resumed Wednesday and only worked half of Thursday, Sept. 27, as officials dealt with a series of issues before finally shutting it all down.

Any longer would stretch workers thin – they were paid Friday, in time for the end of the month. Many are breadwinners and first-generation Canadians who say they rely on each paycheque. (Staff say they have been warned not to speak to media, and spoke anonymously.)

In Brooks, there's little concern about E. coli, just an urgency as workers wait for the reopening of the plant, and the return of jobs that brought them here from across Canada and abroad.

"We are hoping they will open it soon," said one XL employee, a father of four, while unloading groceries and diapers from his van. "If they don't open it, it's not good."

Cleaning crews said, since its shutdown, the plant has been partially overhauled with new wall sections, refurbished floors, new hoses, etc.

A veteran beef industry player says he believes Ottawa is quietly reviewing its inspection process in light of the outbreak.

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"Reading very carefully between the lines, as CFIA continues to make statements, there is in fact a very quiet review of inspection protocols, the role of CFIA and the relationship between the agency and companies," said Ted Haney, president of the Canadian Beef Exporting Federation.

"I think that a very careful systems review is in fact underway."

He said such a review is typical in a case of this kind.

The XL Foods plant is one of the three largest slaughterhouses in Canada.

It was at another plant – the CFIA won't say which – that testing on beef trim came back positive for E. coli on Sept. 4.

The plant had got the carcass from XL Foods. A day earlier, U.S. officials found E. coli in an XL shipment at the border. CFIA officials swarmed the Brooks plant trying to figure out what went wrong. But they still let it operate, thinking it was a one-off. People were already getting sick. The recall began Sept. 16, and the shutdown was announced Sept. 27.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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