(Reuters) - XL Foods, the owner of the Canadian beef plant that is at the center of one of Canada’s largest meat recalls, said on Thursday it will increase food safety measures once the government allows the Brooks, Alberta, facility to reopen.
It was the company’s first statement since the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) suspended the plant’s operating license last week, as more steaks, roasts, ground beef and other products are recalled that may contain E. coli bacteria.
In all, the recall involves millions of pounds of beef produced from late August to early September and shipped to stores in Canada and the United States. Beef from the plant has been linked to five illnesses and the recall led to one call for Canada’s agriculture minister to resign.
“We believed XL Foods was a leader in the beef-processing industry with our food safety protocols, but we have now learned it was not enough,” the company said in a release. “We take full responsibility for our plant operations and the food it produces, which is consumed by Canadians from coast to coast.”
To improve safety, XL said it will use video cameras to audit plant processes, will expand washing the sides of beef with high-pressure hot water to eliminate E. coli contamination, and add staff to each shift to monitor sanitary procedures.
XL Foods said when the plant does reopen, it will begin with limited production.
The recall of beef from the plant began September 16, almost two weeks after the CFIA learned of the contamination and began an investigation. CFIA has said it did not recall meat earlier because the products originally flagged had not made it onto store shelves.
Since then, the recall has been expanded several times, the latest being on Wednesday, and now involves more than 1,500 products.
Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said on Thursday that the plant will not open until the head of CFIA assures him that it poses no health risk, and defended the government’s handling of the crisis.
“We acted as quickly and responsibly as we possibly could,” he said.
The United States stopped importing meat from the plant on September 13, several days before Canada began to recall meat.
The 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.
CFIA has said that it identified deficiencies at the plant that separately would not have led to E. coli contamination, but collectively played a role.
Opposition legislators in Canada on Thursday called for Agriculture Minister Ritz to resign and pressed for a sweeping review of food safety systems by Canada’s auditor general.
The CFIA has pointed to a five-day delay in XL Foods complying with the agency’s request for information, prior to the recall. XL did not directly address that concern in its statement, but said that it has always supplied testing results to CFIA inspectors daily.
Illnesses in five people in Alberta have been connected to the beef from XL Foods, according to the province’s health ministry.
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.
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.
Canada is the world’s sixth-largest exporter of beef and veal.
Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer