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(Reuters) - Canadian food inspectors could not immediately get key information from packer XL Foods after detecting E. coli bacteria in its beef, adding to a nearly two-week delay in launching one of the country's largest-ever meat recalls.
Authorities learned about the presence of E. coli in beef produced at the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alberta, from U.S. authorities on September 4, triggering a Canadian investigation.
Two days later, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) asked XL Foods for information on product testing and distribution, but the request was not fulfilled until September 11.
"There was a delay in getting it," George Da Pont, president of the CFIA, said in a press conference at a CFIA laboratory in Calgary, Alberta. "We have limited authority to compel immediate documentation."
Officials from XL Foods could not immediately be reached for comment.
Five illnesses have been linked to the tainted beef.
One of the provisions in draft legislation to make foods safer for Canadians would give the CFIA more authority, Da Pont said.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, who oversees the CFIA, said the agency had done "a terrific job" dealing with the tainted beef.
Meat from the XL Foods plant was not recalled until September 16, almost two weeks after the CFIA knew of the contamination. CFIA did not recall meat earlier because the products originally flagged had not made it onto store shelves, Da Pont said.
Since then, the recall has expanded several times and now involves more than 1,500 products, including ground beef, roasts and steaks. The plant was closed last Thursday.
E. coli, a strain of which can cause sickness or even death, is widely present in meat-processing plants, and regulators require packers to control the bacteria within certain levels. E.coli can be killed by thoroughly cooking meat.
The lag between detecting the bacteria and recalling tainted beef is not unusual and does not point to poor performance by CFIA, said Rick Holley, a food microbiologist at University of Manitoba.
But the sweeping recall points to a shortcoming in the Canadian food-safety system - not enough understanding of organisms that cause food-borne illnesses and a lack of preventative action, he said.
"We're really walking around in the dark. Food safety in Canada is more by accident than by design."
A CFIA official said Tuesday that the XL Foods plant may reopen later this week, once the company complies with six requests for corrective action.
Eleven people have recently become sick in Alberta due to E. coli bacteria, and five of those were confirmed to be connected to beef from XL Foods. Neighboring Saskatchewan reported 13 cases of E. coli infection in September, far more than usual, and the province's health officials are testing for a link to the XL recall.
The meat recall is the biggest in Canada since at least 2008, when 22 people died after eating deli meat from a Maple Leaf Foods plant.
The latest recall affected food stores across Canada and most U.S. states and include Wal-Mart Stores Inc, Costco Wholesale Corp, Safeway and Loblaw Companies Ltd.
The plant's temporary closure has left ranchers with fewer options to sell their cattle, and prompted rival Cargill Ltd to boost production at its High River, Alberta, plant.
Prices of cattle for slaughter have dropped sharply since the plant closed, said Saskatchewan farmer Glenn Tait of the National Farmers Union.
"This sudden and unpredictable loss of income may well wipe out our 2012 profits," he said.
Opposition legislators have alleged that sweeping budget cuts by the Canadian government this year to reduce the deficit contributed to the spread of contaminated products.
CFIA has said that 46 agency staff work full-time at the Brooks plant, an increase over three years ago.
Canada is the world's sixth-largest exporter of beef and veal.
Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; editing by Jim Marshall and Bob Burgdorfer