The federal food safety watchdog says there was a delay in getting data on tainted beef from the Alberta slaughterhouse now under scrutiny in the largest beef recall in Canadian history.
George Da Pont began to explain this to reporters during a Calgary media availability with Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz Wednesday but a federal government staffer cut short the press conference.
Mr. Da Pont, president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, was answering a question on why the CFIA took so long to get information on particular lots of meat from XL Foods' plant.
"We did not wait five days before asking," Mr. Da Pont said. "We asked on the sixth of September."
He said front-line staff were scouring the beef processing chain for "critical points" where E. coli might flare up.
"On the sixth, we did ask for all of the information There was a delay in getting it," he said.
He said the CFIA doesn't yet have the power to compel the speedy delivery of information.
"We have limited authority to compel immediate communication," Mr. Da Pont said.
He said the new food safety act introduced by the Harper government – but still not passed into law – gives the CFIA more power in this regard.
"There's a provision in that to authorize us to do that."
Mr. Ritz's handlers stepped in at this point to end to the press conference after only four questions, saying they would prefer to talk to journalists one-on-one. However later they said the CFIA would only answer technical questions about the recall.
The agriculture minister declined to answer a reporter's question on whether he was surprised to see such an outbreak occur in 2012.
He told reporters the CFIA is boosting food inspection scrutiny of the Alberta beef slaughterhouse that's now the focus of a massive recall over tainted meat.
Mr. Ritz, who visited the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta., Wednesday morning, said the facility won't reopen until food inspectors certify that Canadians are not at risk.
"I saw first-hand that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has a full contingent of inspectors and staff – sampling, testing and examining all product and procedures in the plant," Mr. Ritz told reporters.
"CFIA has deployed additional resources to the plant to ensure Canadian consumers and their families are protected," he said.
The CFIA president was asked about the fact that the U.S. has stronger beef monitoring rules.
Mr. Da Pont said Canada has long been in talks with the U.S. about harmonizing standards, but no decision has been made yet about changing this country's inspection rules.
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.
The CFIA president said the massive recall was precautionary, but that doesn't mean all that beef is contaminated.
Mr. Da Pont added that XL Foods, in addition to the CFIA, is responsible for food safety in this country.
"Industry has, as well, a front-line role and responsibility to ensure that their product is safe and to ensure that they have procedures in place to validate that," he said.
Lakeside, the abattoir at the centre of the controversy owned by XL Foods, has been co-operating in the probe.
Mr. Da Pont said he is confident in Lakeside, despite the advancing age of the plant, and an investigation is under way to see what improvements, if any, are needed.
Mr. Ritz visited the Brooks facility early Wednesday morning, leaving the slaughterhouse around 7:50 a.m. local time, shortly after the overnight cleaning staff. He was headed to Calgary, where he was scheduled to speak with CFIA staff and, later, the media.
Mr. Ritz didn't stop to speak in Brooks. His spokeswoman said only that he visited XL to "personally ensure that the health and safety of Canadian consumers remains everyone's highest priority."
The plant is not yet operating – it hasn't since Sept. 27 – and all its production staff are off work. Mr. Ritz's tour, as such, comes amid circumstances dramatically different than a normal production day, when 4,000 cows would be killed beginning at 7 a.m.
Mr. Ritz has stayed out of the spotlight since late last week, when more illnesses were reported and the scale of the recall began to grow, and hasn't appeared during Question Period this week. Opposition critics say he's trying to distance himself from the scandal after once trying to take credit for the response. Last week, Mr. Ritz said "we've actually done a tremendous job." Then, as the recalls and illnesses grew, he began deferring to the CFIA and declining interview requests.
The Commons Wednesday agreed to hold an emergency debate on the beef recall after requests from opposition MPs.
The recall now includes 1,500 products and, by NDP critic Malcolm Allen's estimate, nearly three million pounds of beef, all dating back to one slaughter day and five production days at the massive Brooks facility. (The CFIA says the total amount called back is a proprietary issue, and can't release it.)
XL Foods hasn't commented since last week. Its co-CEOs, Brian and Lee Nilsson, also haven't returned requests for comment, and security staff at the plant's gate ordered a Globe reporter off XL Foods' property.
The plant could reopen as soon as Thursday. Production workers, who make up the vast majority of the plant's 2,200 staff, have been asked to call in each afternoon to see whether they're needed the next day.
The ordeal dates back to Aug. 23, a slaughter day at the plant, which is one of Canada's three largest slaughterhouses. The E. coli has been traced to that day, and five subsequent "production" days when cows killed on the 23rd were further cut up into products. (The full timeline can be found here ).
Canadian tests first noticed a problem on Sept. 4 at another plant (the CFIA won't say which), where staff found tainted beef in a carcass it received from XL. A day earlier, American authorities stopped an XL shipment at the border after finding E. coli.
The CFIA began investigating, and found nothing, considering it a smaller problem. It issued a series of minor "corrective actions" to XL Foods, but noticed no major issues – saying, in short, that the system worked but the beef still got through.
However, American tests on Sept. 12 once again raised an alarm. A recall was issued four days later, and American authorities went public four days after that.
The plant continued to operate, but experienced ongoing issues, shutting down occasionally before the CFIA closed it on Sept. 27. It won't reopen "until they have demonstrated that they have fully implemented CFIA's required corrective actions," the CFIA says.
At least 23 human cases of E. coli illness are being investigated, though only five have been definitively linked to beef from XL Foods.
XL is a supplier to major smaller agencies, and its products are found in essentially every major grocery chain in Canada. The Nilsson brothers' company bought the plant in 2008 for $107-million, and have increased the number of cows going through each day, the workers' union says.
About half its product is sent to the U.S., which has now closed its border to XL Foods. Alberta exported nearly $1-billion in beef last year.