Beef carcasses at XL Foods' Lakeside packing plant will be processed -- but headed to detention -- starting Thursday as the southern Alberta facility begins a staged restart under federal watch.
Products from the Brooks, Alta. plant were the subject of weeks of recalls across North America following detections of E. coli O157:H7 bacteria and, as of Wednesday, 12 cases of illness across Canada linked to XL.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which suspended the Lakeside plant's operating license on Sept. 27, said Thursday it will allow carcasses at the plant to be processed so its inspectors may "fully assess the facility's E. coli safeguards in action."
However, CFIA said, meat from the carcasses -- and only from those carcasses which tested negative for O157:H7 -- will remain under CFIA detention, meaning the finished product can't yet leave the plant.
The detention will continue, the agency said, until CFIA president George Da Pont has confirmed in writing to federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz that plant controls are "effectively and consistently managing E. coli risks."
CFIA said it will "immediately halt operations if inspectors note any concerns with the facility's food safety controls."
The agency, which has monitored the plant's upgrades to its food safety regime since the Sept. 27 shutdown, said its Oct. 9 review found all areas of the Lakeside plant have been cleaned and sanitized.
CBC on Thursday quoted CFIA officials as saying the plant had 5,100 carcasses in storage that tested negative for E. coli contamination.
CBC reporter Meagan Fitzpatrick reported on Twitter Thursday that the E. coli-negative carcasses amounted to 99 per cent of those on hand, and any carcasses that tested positive will be destroyed.
"Far too fast"
Ritz, CFIA and XL Foods have come under criticism in recent weeks for their handling of the contamination issues at Lakeside. The federal opposition NDP has mounted an online petition calling for Ritz's resignation over his "continued insistence on self-regulation and refusal to listen to (XL) workers' concerns."
The NDP, in a release Wednesday, quoted union officials representing XL workers as alleging staff "have been scared into refusing to report food safety issues at the plant."
Among those issues, the New Democrats said, are "a failure to properly clean knives on the production line and a processing speed that has been allowed to get far too fast."
"The information that has been slowly leaking out of this plant is concerning," Quebec MP and NDP deputy ag critic Ruth Ellen Brosseau said in the party's release. "Front-line workers need to know they won't be punished for coming forward with information that may help protect the safety of our food."
The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 said it "has been raising concerns about training for temporary foreign workers, line speed and the need for whistleblower protection for years."
Staff at Brooks are "going to be back at work in a few days, but nothing has been done to address the issues that led to this problem," UFCW Local 401 president Doug O'Halloran said in a separate release Wednesday.
"We've dealt with other CEOs in the meatpacking industry, but we've never come across anyone who wouldn't at least meet with us to talk about food safety."
XL retorted Wednesday in a separate release that the company has an "open door policy for its workers" and "has always welcomed their input on plant operations."
"I am saddened that the UFCW has chosen to attack the workmanship of its many members," XL CEO Brian Nilsson said. "We have extensive training programs for new workers and hold our workers in the highest regard for their abilities."
Lakeside "runs its line speeds at less than industry average for a plant of this size and within regulatory requirements," XL said.
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Ranchers wait out beef recall, exports to U.S. grow,
Oct. 11, 2012
CFIA yanks license for XL's Brooks beef plant,
Sept. 28, 2012