The plant at the centre of the biggest beef recall in Canadian history wasn't properly following some safety procedures, the head of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency says.
George Da Pont said Wednesday the CFIA had issued seven corrective action requests to the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta., and was monitoring them before the agency decided to shut the plant down.
It appears the plant wasn't always using one of the measures that Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz pointed to Wednesday as a "safety valve" for the Canadian meat industry.
"When we find a shipment that has a contaminant like E. coli, such as we've found, we do what's called bracketing," Ritz said Wednesday in Calgary.
"And we take out the shipment ahead of it and the shipment behind it and search those out, and everything is brought back. That's the safety valve."
But Da Pont said the company didn't always follow those safeguards.
"What we found is that the plant was not doing appropriate trend analysis when they had spikes[in E. coli] the previous week," Da Pont said.
"We found that there were, when we did the further investigations, a few instances where the bracketing process that the minister described was not properly followed... Specifically, it seems that there were a few instances that we could document where they did not divert either the [carcass] before or after."
Later in the day, House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer approved a motion to have an emergency debate on food safety. The non-binding debate will take place between 7:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. ET.
CFIA lacks power to compel information, president says
Da Pont also said he doesn't have enough power to compel companies to hand over records quickly.
CFIA officials asked the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta., for distribution information and test results for all products made on the same days as E. coli-tainted samples.
But they couldn't get them right away, Da Pont said.
"We asked on the 6th of September.... We did ask for all of the information. There was a delay in getting it. And in fact that is one of the provisions that we have put in the new food safety act [Bill S-11]," Da Pont said.
"We have limited authority to compel immediate documentation. There is a provision in that [bill] to authorize us to do that."
CBC News has asked several times to interview Senator Don Plett, the parliamentarian behind the bill, but Plett has declined to be interviewed, saying the bill has nothing to do with the problems found at XL Foods.
CFIA officials wanted records on beef produced on Aug. 24 and 28. Beef processed on those days tested positive for E. coli in tests done at the U.S. border and by CFIA on Sept. 4.
Took 4 days to produce records
XL Foods turned over the information on Sept. 10 and 11, according to a timeline posted on CFIA's website. Based on those records, CFIA started investigating beef produced on Sept. 5 too. On Sept. 12, U.S. officials found two more samples of beef that tested positive for E. coli. On Sept. 13, the CFIA banned XL Foods from shipping any more meat to the U.S. but didn't alert the Canadian public until Sept. 16.
Da Pont says the system did what it was designed to do, but no system is perfect. In the first few days after finding E. coli in products from the plant, the problem seemed to be under control.
"For those particular days, we had control of all of the product that tested positive. Obviously, the shipment at the border was all at the border, the shipment that we found, some of it had gone into distribution. We immediately got it back. None of it had gone to the retail level," he said.
Ritz said that inspection staff at the XL Foods plant have done "a terrific job" until now.
Ritz, who hasn't been at question period in Ottawa since the recall was expanded over the weekend, told a news conference that "the 46 professional staff that are on the ground there have done a terrific job up to this point."
The CFIA has 40 in-house inspectors and six veterinarians at the XL Foods plant in Brooks.
Ritz's staff ushered him out of the news conference after 8½ minutes.
The recall of beef possibly tainted by E. coli now affects 1,500 products processed at the plant and hits stores in every province and territory, as well as in 41 American states.
CBC News has learned the CFIA found XL foods did not follow at least six protocols. One dealt with E. coli controls in the plant, and the others focused on plant sanitation and maintenance issues. One problem was that some hot water nozzles were clogged, Hannah Thibedeau reported.
'Full contingent of inspectors onsite'
Asked whether 46 was enough inspection staff, Ritz didn't directly answer.
"There is a full contingent of inspectors onsite and there was before this incident," he said. "That is a 20 per cent increase over the last couple of years. So, you know, we are ramping it up, there are more people on the ground to address these types of situations. We are proud of that as a government."
CFIA has another 13 people at the plant now to look at what happened and report to the government, Ritz added.
A food safety expert at the University of Calgary says the CFIA could learn some lessons from inspection systems elsewhere in the world.
Bonnie Buntain, the former chief public health veterinarian for the food safety and inspection service in the U.S., says that in Australia all testing done at beef processing plants is downloaded to a government database.
"Then the government has immediate access to that data and can sit down and talk about trends, and be more proactive, and look at where the risks might be occurring," she said.
Buntain says the recall in Canada is a good opportunity to improve the system here.
There have been five confirmed cases of illness linked to a Costco store that sold meat from XL Foods, and four other cases under investigation. Officials have determined another case that was being investigated is not linked to meat from XL Foods.
There were also more cases of E. coli than usual in Saskatchewan in September, leading the province's Ministry of Health to investigate whether there's a link to the recalled beef.