Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz is heralding the benefits of new food safety legislation poised to become law. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In the aftermath of the massive E. coli scare at the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta., the House of Commons has passed legislation to modernize, consolidate and add consistency to Canada's food inspection system.

While the legislation is not a direct response to September's XL Foods shutdown, federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said Bill S-11 will provide a "more consistent" approach to food inspection, allowing a "uniform approach" across all food commodities.

Bill S-11 originated in the Senate in June.  It passed a third reading unanimously Tuesday evening and only royal assent remains before the bill becomes law.

Speaking before the final vote on Tuesday, Ritz highlighted several improvements contained in the Safe Food for Canadians Act:

  • Better traceability in the food system, making it easier to recall products if safety issues arise somewhere in the food chain.
  • New record-keeping requirements for regulated facilities and more powers for inspectors to compel the production of documents in useable formats.
  • Tougher penalties for those who violate established safety standards, increasing maximum fines from $250,000 to up to $5 million, or even higher at the court’s discretion.
  • New penalties for "recklessly endangering the lives of Canadians" through tampering, deceptive practices or hoaxes.
  • Registration for all importers, to add a greater degree of certainty to the food safety system.
  • More authority for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to certify exporters, if required by other countries to facilitate trade.

The recall of meat products processed at XL Foods earlier this fall was the largest recall in Canadian history. Ritz cited the 2,000 different products subject to the recall as an illustration of the complexity of where food products can end up and how they can be processed in different ways across the country.

"[Bill S-11] gives us a better handle of who's got what and where it went, other than looking at shipping and receiving receipts, which take time to put together," Ritz said.

"It also allows us to ask for information from a company in a much more timely way and in a format that is useable," he said.

The legislative basis for Canada's food inspection system used to be spread across multiple bills and involved multiple departments.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency was created in the mid-nineties to unify the work of different departments involved in food safety, but much of the legislation driving the CFIA's mandate remained scattered and required updating.

Ritz told reporters Tuesday afternoon that the next step will be to consult with industry officials to get regulations in place to put the bill's contents into practice.

The agriculture minister also said that now that the Brooks plant is under new management, the meat processor's production line has actually been stopped voluntarily several times to deal with issues as they've emerged.

American officials have been in the plant to examine changes that have been made and Ritz said their assessment is coming "hopefully soon."

Beef from the plant is now back on the Canadian domestic market as well as others. Ritz said Tuesday that despite the massive size of the recall, beef sales are not down very much overall.

An expert panel reviewing what went wrong at XL Foods is expected to make its findings public within months.

The CFIA also is looking at its own procedures, Ritz said, and may make other internal changes based on its own assessment.

With files from CBC's Kady O'Malley