XL Foods breaks silence on beef recall: 'We take full responsibility'
Published Thursday, October 4, 2012 7:08AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, October 5, 2012 9:32AM EDT
The Alberta company at the centre of an E. coli scare that prompted a massive beef recall publicly addressed the crisis Thursday.
XL Foods Inc., which operates a meat processing plant in Brooks Alta. where E. coli was found, issued a statement saying: "We take full responsibility for our plant operations and the food it produces, which is consumed by Canadians from coast to coast."
"We are doing everything we can to take the lead in an enhanced comprehensive food safety program for our plant," the company said.
Meanwhile, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz continues to defend the government’s response to the tainted meat crisis amid calls for his resignation in the House of Commons.
“We acted as quickly and as responsibly as we possibly could,” he said Thursday.
Ritz added that misinformation has caused more concern than warranted about the safety of beef products in Canada.
But the president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency confirmed what CTV News reported Wednesday: the XL Foods plant had poor sanitation and a weak E. coli tracking system.
“They were not taking the corrective measures you would normally expect,” George Da Pont said.
There were broken rinse nozzles in the carcass washing area and the plant failed to destroy some suspect carcasses.
In the House of Commons, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair called for Ritz to resign. Other opposition MPs also grilled Ritz, demanding to know why the beef plant at the heart of the recall wasn’t shut down sooner.
Ritz’s response in the House was much the same as it was at a hastily organized news conference in suburban Ottawa just hours before.
He shrugged off allegations that the government has been slow to react to the news that beef shipped out across the country may have been contaminated with dangerous E. coli bacteria.
“This is a scientific, not a political process,” Ritz said of the recall process. “There’s a tremendous amount of misinformation out there that somehow there are cuts to our food safety system.”
“When you look at the timeline you’ll see we acted as quickly and responsibly as we possibly could.”
He said legislation is in the works to ensure that the CFIA has the power to obtain documents it needs in a more timely fashion and he blamed opposition parties for the fact the legislation didn’t already exist.
“We’ve been working on this for quite a while,” Ritz said. “We had a little thing called a minority government where not much happened. We tabled it in the spring and we look forward to moving it forward quite expeditiously.”
Da Pont also spoke at the news conference and said CFIA’s practices are adequate to ensure the safety of the food system.
“There are six vets and 40 front-line inspectors at the plant, day in, day out,” Da Pont said. “Our staff caught all of the day to day issues.”
He said the legislation Ritz referred to would not reduce the number of frontline staff at the CFIA and added he’d like to increase the agency’s capacity to analyze data. He also welcomed news that the new legislation would provide the agency greater powers to ensure that companies hand over documentation in a timely fashion, a key problem with the XL recall.
Da Pont said while XL had been required to hand over documents detailing plant safety processes, the CFIA had not been able to obtain those documents from the company until Sept. 10 and 11, some four days after news of the tainted beef surfaced.
Thursday’s news conference contrasted sharply with comments made by Ritz Wednesday, when handlers shut down a media availability where reporters had started pitching tough questions about the recall.
“I saw firsthand the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has a full contingent of inspectors and staff testing and sampling all products and procedures at the plant,” Ritz told media at the event. “The XL food plant will only resume operations when the president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has confirmed in writing to me that the health of Canadians is not at risk.”
But a handler cut Ritz off as reporters started firing tough questions about the speed of the government’s reaction. Da Pont was also cut off by a federal government handler after he admitted XL had failed to provide crucial documents to the CFIA as early as Sept. 6.
“We have limited authority to compel immediate documentation,” Da Pont said before Ritz’s handler ended the press conference.
As of Thursday, the recall encompassed more than 1,700 products. One of the people who became ill from eating contaminated meat has already launched a class-action lawsuit against the company.
Close to the meat packing plant, Brooks, Alta. Mayor Martin Shields told CTV that XL has not been forthcoming , even at a local level. He said plant workers were staying tuned to local radio to learn whether they should report for work.
With a report from CTV’s Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Fife and files from Angela Mulholland