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OTTAWA/WINNIPEG, MANITOBA (Reuters) - Canada's food inspection agency will allow the XL Foods plant in Alberta, which produced the tainted beef that triggered one of the biggest meat recalls in Canadian history, to resume limited meat processing only on Thursday.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) said no meat will be allowed to leave the plant for now and that it will be adding extra inspectors to closely monitor the company's plan to improve food safety at the plant, which had slaughtered 40 percent of all Canadian cattle.
The CFIA suspended the Brooks, Alberta, plant's operating license on September 27, due to an expanded recall of millions of pounds of beef suspected of being contaminated with E. coli bacteria. At least 12 people in Canada are recovering from eating meat contaminated with E. coli bacteria.
The resumption of limited processing only marks the next stage in a review of XL's improvements to the plant, said Harpreet Kochhar, executive director of Western operations at CFIA.
"While the plan appears comprehensive and appropriate on paper we need to confirm its full implementation and effectiveness in action," Kochhar said.
For now, the XL plant will only process about 5,000 carcasses that were in the plant prior to its closure and that have tested negative for E. coli.
CFIA has added temporary two inspectors to boost oversight at the plant and gave no timeline for the plant resuming operations.
"I think it's a good move that they're actually looking to review procedures before they're opening everything up," said Keith Warriner, a professor of food science at the University of Guelph, Ontario.
"The key thing is people have to show they've learned from this and when things are going wrong in the plant, that you actually do something about it."
Millions of pounds of beef have been recalled across Canada and most U.S. states, and the recall involved such food stores as Wal-Mart Stores Inc, Costco Wholesale Corp, Safeway and Loblaw Companies Ltd. Some of the tainted beef also reached Hong Kong.
CFIA has flagged the company for not fully following its own plan to control food safety risks.
In a statement, XL Foods said earlier this week that it has addressed the problems raised by inspectors, such as the need for better analysis of positive findings of E. coli and improved record-keeping and monitoring.
But the union that represents workers at the plant, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, argues that the culture at the plant needs to change to make food and worker safety the highest priority. The high speed of production lines in particular is "a serious problem," and other practices are sloppy, like sterilizing knives, the union has said.
"Line speed is not an issue of concern for us as long as the controls are working, and that's what we're going to ensure," said Richard Arsenault, CFIA's director of meat programs.
As the plant shutdown nears the two-week mark, Western Canadian ranchers and feedlots have held back cattle from market longer than usual, incurring extra costs. Other cattle are headed to slaughter plants in Nebraska, Utah and Washington.
Canada is the world's sixth-largest exporter of beef and veal.
Reporting by Louise Egan in Ottawa and Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Editing by Peter Galloway, Bob Burgdorfer and Marguerita Choy