OTTAWA – XL Foods has repeatedly been cited for deficient food safety standards stretching back more than a decade, including violations for E. coli contamination on multiple occasions, CTV News has learned.

Documents obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture by CTV News also reveal that XL Foods plants have been shut out of the U.S. market numerous times since 2001.

USDA conducts regular audits of Canadian meat plants, assessing whether inspection systems are adequate and to see if plants meet export requirements. The U.S. audits showed that XL Foods’ owners, Brian and Lee Nilsson, were repeatedly forced to clean up facilities.

“There was a period of time a number of years ago where there were issues being flagged through these (U.S. Department of Agriculture) reviews – things that we didn’t like either,” said Dr. Richard Arsenault, Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s director of meat programs division. “We dealt with them immediately and we took the steps to protect food safety.”

In a 2001 audit of a XL Foods plant in Calgary, U.S. inspectors noted that the plant “allowed contamination of carcasses.” Inspectors also found “improper testing and evaluation of E. coli” during the audit.

In 2003, two XL Foods plants in Calgary were cited for a range of problems with meat handling practices, leading to them being removed from the list of establishments certified as eligible to export to the United States.

In one of the de-listed plants, “long meat hooks were hanging from an insanitary structure,” the audit noted, “and were covered with meat and fat from the previous day’s operation.” Plastic tubs used to hold products were also “smeared with black marks,” inspectors found, and they were “not cleaned sufficiently.”

Another plant had “rusty overhead structures and peeling paint . . . throughout the boning room” and “flaking paint” over carcasses in a cooler.

U.S. and Canadian authorities issued a notice to de-list the two Calgary XL Foods plants immediately after the findings from those July 2003 audits. The plants were re-certified more than a year later in December 2004.

Many of the USDA audits over the past decade also found insanitary operations at XL Foods plants. The company’s food hazards and pest control plans were also incomplete or were not followed, audits said.

In 2006, audit reports of XL’s Calgary facility said “blood and other liquids were dripping . . . into a basket of edible meat pieces.”

Two years later, inspectors found “surplus pipes filled with blood and dirt” at a XL facility, as well as “a turf of hair” on a support for a carcass skinning rail.

XL Foods did not respond to CTV’s request to comment on the USDA audits.

“We’re realizing that these companies have a long history of bad behaviour and nobody’s calling them to account,” said NDP leader Tom Mulcair.

“It’s entirely unacceptable that Canadians would be less informed than Americans and that Canadians would be, frankly, less protected than Americans,” added Liberal Leader Bob Rae.

XL Foods has been involved in a massive meat recall prompted by an E. coli scare at its Brooks, Alta., plant. A strain of the bacteria linked to XL has made at least 15 people in four provinces sick.

The Brooks, Alta., plant that triggered the current E. coli crisis was bought by XL Foods in 2009.

USDA also identified serious food safety problems at this plant before the takeover, including “marginally acceptable” E. coli compliance in 2001. One year later, auditors inspected 15 carcasses after skinning and “all had visible fecal contamination.” Based on those findings, Canadian and U.S. inspectors issued a notice of intent to de-list the plant.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says XL facilities are far more hygienic than in the past years. The agency insists the country’s food system isn’t broken but more attention needs to be paid to sanitation and hygiene at meat plants.

“Was XL doing a perfect job? Well, we wouldn’t be here if they were,” said CFIA’s Arsenault. “Do they need to do a better job? Absolutely and if they don’t, we are going to be on top of it.”

Read the USDA audits of XL Foods: