The XL Foods meat processing plant in Brooks, Alta., will be allowed to resume operations immediately under enhanced Canadian Food Inspection Agency oversight, the agency says.
The agency announced in Ottawa on Tuesday that following a review of the scientific evidence it has reinstated the licence of the southern Alberta plant, which has been at the centre of a massive recall of meat.
The plant will operate under enhanced surveillance and increased testing protocols, with more than 46 CFIA inspectors assigned to monitor slaughter procedures.
"We have a competent and professional group of inspection staff and veterinarians in the plant. Our focus is on the consistency of the application of the food safety controls on the part of the company," said vice-president of programs Paul Mayers.
CFIA has called for increased testing for E. coli, which sees all "trim lots" held until they are sampled and tested and the results have come back.
"While we are confident that all food safety controls are being implemented appropriately, we will take the added precaution of maintaining enhanced inspection at the XL Foods Incorporated plant for the foreseeable future," he said.
"For example, we will increase the frequency of certain inspection tasks at key stages of production. We will increase CFIA E. coli testing above and beyond the testing the company already does, and all products will be held until all E. coli test results have been assessed. If concerns are identified at any point, CFIA inspectors will immediately halt operations."
Inspector training questions
CBC News has learned CFIA inspectors at the XL Foods plant fall far below the national average in their training when it comes to something called CVS, the compliance verification system.
It's designed to make sure plants are following federal food safety guidelines and that the "inspection has been done in a consistent, uniform, and efficient way, regardless of which inspector was on the job or where the plant is located."
Nationally, 76 per cent of meat inspectors are fully trained, but at the XL Foods plant only 28 per cent have the full training — which is 11 out of 40.
The meat inspectors union is convinced a lack of fully trained inspectors contributed to the E. coli crisis.
"We think it played a role," said Raphael Tarasco, vice-president of the Agriculture Union of Canada. "The more inspectors you've got trained to do these CVS tasks, the less probability of missing something."
But CFIA defended the number of trained inspectors on site, which was increased to 42 inspectors and six veterinarians during the agency's recent "multi-stage assessment" at the plant.
"We have ... an appropriate complement of the inspection staff — both veterinarians as well as inspectors — who are fully trained in doing the CVS tasks," said Harpreet Kochhar, CFIA's executive director of western operations.
CFIA says it will convene a panel of experts to review what went wrong at the XL Foods plant, and has promised to make those findings public.
Alberta cattle ranchers pleased
Alberta's Agriculture Minister Verlyn Olson welcomed news of the gradual resumption of the slaughtering and processing operations.
"Our producers are very resilient people, Albertans are resilient people, but it has obviously done some damage to us in the short term," he said.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford agreed with Olsen, saying the primary objective was to get that plant reopened from the very beginning of this "crisis."
"Our minister of agriculture and I have met on a regular basis and … with Alberta producers, with feedlot operators and with the employees at the plant to make sure that we could support CFIA and the minister of agriculture in getting this plant reopened, so it's good news today," she said.
Olson said no other food processing plant in North America has been under more scrutiny in the past few weeks than the Brooks plant.
From his ranch in Camrose, Alta., Dave Solverson, vice-president of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, called the reopening of the plant "a great step forward."
"No business likes uncertainty and it's really caused a lot of uncertainty," he said. "There are still about 12,000 head per week in Western Canada, that were market-ready cattle, that were unable to be slaughtered so they had to be moved to the U.S. and there was just logistical problems, not enough truck to move them."
Consumers can continue to feel confident that beef will be safe to eat, he said.
"The system worked, there were problems of course, but the tainted beef was recalled. I think that most Canadians are pretty good at putting risk in perspective and they understand … it is a perishable food."
Union expects worker training this week
Doug O'Halloran, of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), said earlier Tuesday morning: "We think there’s light at the end of the tunnel now."
The UFCW represents the more than 2,000 workers who were temporarily laid off at the plant in Brooks, Alta., on Oct. 13.
On Sept. 27, the agency suspended XL Foods’ licence to operate the plant because of E. coli concerns. More than 1,800 products have been recalled and 16 people have gotten sick from the tainted meat.
O'Halloran said the union has a meeting with XL Foods and JBS — the Brazilian-based company that will take over management at the plant — at 10 a.m. MT.
O'Halloran said he has heard there are training sessions for workers on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. He expects meat processing will resume by Monday.