Alberta XL Foods plant involved in ground beef recall can't export to the U.S.

The Alberta plant involved in a sweeping recall of ground beef products because of E. coli contamination concerns is not allowed to ship meat to the U.S.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says XL Foods Inc.’s Lakeside plant was decertified from exporting meat on Sept. 13 — three days before the Canadian Food Inspection Agency issued the first of seven product recall notices in Canada.

“Delisted in this case means Canadian Est. 38 (XL Foods) is not eligible to export any meat, poultry or egg products to the U.S.,” a spokesman for the U.S. food safety inspection service (FSIS) wrote Tuesday in an email from Washington, D.C.

“When a plant is delisted by the U.S. or the foreign government they are not eligible to export FSIS regulated products to the U.S.”

Canada imposed the export ban at the request of the U.S. government, a CFIA official later confirmed. The U.S. is the main buyer of Canadian beef exports. The XL Foods Lakeside plant near Brooks, Alta., is the second largest in Canada.

The U.S.D.A. is also recalling XL Foods ground beef products from six grocery retail chains in eight states as part of a public health alert. These products shipped to the U.S. before the ban on the XL Foods plant was imposed.

A Canadian Food Inspection Agency review of the plant found deviations in the way the company documented its E. coli control measures, but didn’t find one single factor that would lead to contamination.

The agency says so far more than 250 beef products have been recalled from stores across Canada. Health officials have not linked the recall to anyone getting sick.

XL Foods officials in Edmonton were not available to answer questions about the agency’s review of its E. coli policies or the U.S. export ban.

The company said in a release that it was taking steps to improve the way it operates, but also said its E. coli control programs work well.

“The review conducted by CFIA verified the effectiveness of XL’s E. coli 0157:H7 control program,” the company said.

“XL has developed and initiated a response plan that exceeds industry standards and has been accepted by CFIA.”

It was U.S. food safety inspectors who first notified Canada about E. coli found in Canadian beef at the border on Sept. 3 — 10 days before Washington asked for an export ban on the Lakeside plant and nearly two weeks before the CFIA began issuing product recalls in Canada.

Dr. Richard Arsenault, director of meat programs for the CFIA, said a Canadian team needed time to inspect the plant and review production records to figure out the extent of the possible contamination and which batches of beef should be recalled.

The agency said it will monitor the changes XL Foods’ Lakeside plant is to make to its E. coli policies to ensure they are effective, but it also warned more products from the plant could be recalled.

Arsenault said despite the recall, Canada’s food safety system is working well.

“The overall controls are stronger than they have ever been, the overall prevalence (of E. coli) in product is lower than it has ever been, the rate of illness is lower than it has ever been,” he said from Ottawa.

“This is still an incident that we don’t think is acceptable. We are going to work to try and make sure that we don’t have this happen in that plant or anywhere else in Canadian plants in the future.”

Officials from Canada’s beef industry hope the recall won’t undermine consumer confidence in Canadian beef products.

Alberta Agriculture Minister Verlyn Olson said his staff are helping with the federal investigation into the tainted meat.

Olson said that while it’s a federal responsibility, it’s Alberta’s reputation that is also at risk.

“We want to maintain the excellent reputation that we have in the country, on the continent and in the world in terms of safe food, so (are we) concerned? Certainly.”

Harold Martens, president of the Saskatchewan Stockgrowers, said he is disappointed the Alberta plant can’t export to the U.S. and hopes the problem can be resolved quickly.

Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said he is satisfied with how the E. coli recall and investigation have been handled.

He said Canadian inspectors detected a batch of tainted beef from the plant at a secondary processing facility in Calgary on Sept. 4 and they prevented any of the meat from being sold in stores.

He said because the entire batch was seized, there was no need for a recall at that time.

Ritz said that XL Foods then voluntarily agreed to recall beef products produced within ten days before Sept. 4 and ten days after that date as a precaution.

“They have done an exemplary job. Both XL staff there as well and CFIA have lived up to the high standard of food safety that we insist in Canada,” he said from Ottawa.

Producers and the industry have worked hard to raise the profile of Canadian beef, which took a major hit in 2003 during the mad cow disease scare, prompting many countries, including the U.S., to temporarily ban the products.

Ron Glaser of Canada Beef Inc., an industry marketing organization, said consumers believe in Canada’s food safety system and won’t shy away from beef products in grocery stores.

“They trust the system and typically we don’t see long-term impacts in terms of consumer confidence or behaviour based on a recall like this,” he said from Calgary.

“Consumers understand that these things are rare, they are not the norm.”

Arsenault said the CFIA hopes to make a formal request to the U.S. in the coming days to again allow beef from the Lakeside plant to be exported.