Mexican officials quietly inspected six Canadian slaughterhouses last year, part of an audit related to what one company called a border "issue," but the federal government will not say why the inspections occurred.
The Globe and Mail got confirmation of the inspections as Prime Minister Stephen Harper makes his first official visit to Mexico. The two countries on Tuesday announced a handful of new deals, but remain at odds over Canada's requirement that Mexican visitors have a visa. Representatives of Canada's beef industry are among those who have joined Mr. Harper on the trip.
Industry and government officials were reluctant to discuss the unpublicized inspections, but one major beef producer, Cargill Inc., said six facilities were inspected by Mexican officials in October as part of a "beef plant audit," including Cargill's beef plant in Guelph, Ont. The reason remains unclear.
"This situation was not related to food safety," Cargill spokesman Michael Martin said, referring questions to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). The agency confirmed inspections took place, but gave few details.
Brazilian food giant JBS S.A., whose subsidiary owns a major slaughterhouse in Brooks, Alta., would not say whether that site was inspected. "There was an issue apparently at the Mexican border, but CFIA has resolved it," JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett said, later calling it "a government to government issue."
Both companies said on Tuesday that business was not disrupted, although Mr. Martin had earlier said Cargill experienced "a brief interruption for a period of less than a day." The CFIA would say only that the border is currently open – declining to indicate when, where or why the inspections took place, or if anything came of them.
"All establishments that are eligible to export to Mexico continue to be eligible to export to Mexico. There are no changes to export privileges of any establishments inspected by Mexico," CFIA spokeswoman Rachael Burdman said in a brief written statement.
A spokeswoman for Alberta Agriculture Minister Verlyn Olson said "it's business as usual here in Alberta."
Mexican officials have been reluctant to comment on the issue of beef from Canada. However, Mexico's ambassador to Canada, Francisco Suarez, said in an interview in Ottawa earlier this month that all three countries are working to harmonize facility audits and ensure they are timely and well-organized. He said he believes any issues have been solved, but added, "It's ongoing and we have to work at improving the mechanisms of inspection … so nothing gets in the way of the free movement of meat."
No beef dispute was discussed at Mr. Harper's news conference on Tuesday with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. Beef exports to Mexico totalled about $93-million in 2013, behind only the United States and Hong Kong, Statistics Canada figures show.
The Guelph and Brooks facilities are among Canada's biggest slaughterhouses. The latter was the site of a 2012 E. coli outbreak that triggered a major beef recall, and was then acquired by JBS.