Ag minister defends feds' handling of E. coli outbreak
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz toured an E. coli-shuttered Brooks, Alta., meat plant Wednesday and defended officials' handling of the outbreak.
But inspectors said they want faster disclosure of meat industry safety documents to head off the potential poisoning of consumers.
Four days' delay in inspectors acquiring documents on meat testing from XL Foods last month didn't help prevent E. coli-tainted meat from landing on store shelves, conceded Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) officials.
There was little his inspectors could do at the time, CFIA president George Da Pont said.
"We asked on Sept. 6 for the information, there was a delay in getting it -- we have limited authority to compel immediate documentation," Da Pont said. "We had control of every food shipment on the floor on Sept. 5 -- we thought we had everything."
Since it began Sept. 16, the recall of about 1,500 meat products originating from XL Foods' Brooks plant is the largest in Canadian history.
So far, 10 Albertans have been diagnosed with E. coli infection, with five of those linked to the plant's beef.
On Wednesday, Ritz briefly answered questions, saying what he saw at the plant earlier in the day satisfied him that everything was being done to ensure food safety, but that it won't re-open until it should.
"The XL Foods plant will only resume operation when (Da Pont) has confirmed in writing to me that the health of Canadians is not at risk," Ritz said in Calgary, backed by lab coat-clad CFIA staff.
The Brooks plant is expected to re-open any day.
But both Da Pont and Ritz were asked why a beefed-up inspection staff at the Brooks plant of 46 CFIA officials didn't prevent the E. coli outbreak.
Ritz quickly exited the press conference, leaving Da Pont to explain that no system is fail-safe and that the recall system worked.
"We have a very strong food safety system in this country despite this incident," Da Pont said.
CFIA's Dr. Richard Arsenault also cited delays in gaining documentation from XL beef.
"One of the things I'm going to seek in moving forward is getting access to data in real time," he said. "Their communications with us are what they are."
XL Foods has consistently refused to answer media questions on the outbreak, directing reporters to a generic phone message.
None of the federal officials would say too much of the inspection process is left to private industry or comment on union claims the plant operates too quickly to be safe.
Ritz said he's confident upcoming legislation will give his staff more power in overseeing meat plant operations.