Parliament held an emergency debate Wednesday night on how to respond to an E. coli outbreak that has triggered the country's largest beef recall and sent the Harper government scrambling to defend the safety of Canada's food supply.
Millions of pounds of beef – comprising more than 1,500 products – are now being recalled as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency probes the outbreak.
Earlier in the day, the head of Canada's food-safety watchdog, pressed by reporters at a news conference, pointed the finger at XL Foods, the owner of the Brooks, Alta., slaughterhouse that's at the centre of the E. coli outbreak probe. He said the CFIA asked for information promptly, but the company was slow in delivering it.
"We did not wait five days before asking," George Da Pont said. "We asked on the 6th of September."
Late Wednesday night, meat-processing staff at XL Foods were called back to work for the Thursday morning shift, a signal the plant is resuming partial operations to demonstrate its process for the CFIA.
Processing staff for the afternoon shift were left on call. All slaughter workers weren't called in to work Thursday, but may be as soon as Friday, the company told them.
The CFIA asked XL Foods for information on distribution and testing results on Sept. 6 and 7 to determine if there was an E. coli problem, the agency said. It didn't get the necessary information until Sept. 10 and 11. The CFIA ultimately began a recall of beef on Sept. 16, and the XL Foods plant was shut down last week.
Mr. Da Pont said the CFIA does not yet have the power to compel the speedy delivery of information. He pointed out that a new bill introduced by the Harper government, but still not passed into law, would give the CFIA more power in this regard.
The CFIA is probing how cow feces on meat were not caught in time.
In Alberta, officials say they're investigating nine case of E. coli. Four have been linked to meat from the XL Foods plant.
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.
XL Foods has not commented since last week. Its co-CEOs, Brian and Lee Nilsson, also have not responded to requests for comment, and security staff at the plant's gate ordered a Globe reporter off XL Foods' property.
The Harper government kept a tight lid on information Wednesday.
A Conservative government staffer shut down a Calgary press conference featuring Mr. Da Pont and federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz after the minister took just four questions.
Mr. Ritz, who visited the XL Foods plant 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," he told reporters. "CFIA has deployed additional resources to the plant to ensure Canadian consumers and their families are protected."
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.
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.
Mr. Da Pont was asked Wednesday about the fact that the U.S. has stronger beef-monitoring rules. He said Canada has long been in talks with the U.S. about harmonizing standards, but no decision has been made about changing this country's inspection rules. He added that the massive recall was precautionary, but that doesn't mean all that beef is contaminated.
"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," Mr. Da Pont said.
Mr. Ritz, separately, who's managed to avoid Question Period in the Commons all week, was quoted by a home town newspaper playing down the incident earlier in the week.
"Is there an epidemic of E. coli outbreaks? Turns out there's not," Mr. Ritz told an Oct. 1 luncheon, according to The Battlefords News Optimist. "Certainly, we've identified some anomalies in the XL plant, we've addressed those in the proper way based on science, based on international protocols and we'll continue to do that and work our way out of this."
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 has increased the number of cows going through each day, the 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.