XL Foods warned 6 times over lapses before E. coli outbreak

An Alberta meat-processing plant at the centre of Canada's largest beef recall was ordered to address serious problems six times in the months leading up to an E. coli outbreak last summer, documents obtained by CBC News show.

The issues identified by Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors at the Brooks plant, known as Establishment 38, included:

Failure to sanitize cutting tools and workspaces.

Improper labelling.

Mixing of edible and inedible parts of carcasses.

Lapses in building maintenance that saw condensation from pipes dripping onto carcasses.

The details are contained in six Corrective Action Requests (CARs) and followup reports obtained by CBC News under Access to Information requests.

The XL Foods plant's licence was suspended on Sept. 27 because of concerns about E. coli contamination and deficiencies identified by the CFIA at the facility, following an alert issued weeks earlier by U.S. inspectors on a shipment of beef.

CARs are issued by CFIA inspectors in a plant when a formal response is required from the company "to ensure changes that are needed to be taken to allow the facility to be in compliance with the various federal acts and regulations are completed," according to the CFIA.

A CAR issued on Feb. 14 that cited improper building maintenance, including a blast freezer door that did not properly close, exposed insulation, a missing seal on a washroom door and other violations, while also noting that earlier work orders issued to fix some of the problems had not been carried out. A month later, following an extension, a followup report found the issues had been addressed. The serial number for these reports suggests these concerns dated to 2011.

After that, starting in May, five more CARs were issued, mostly due to violations of sanitation and operational sanitation. These included:

A May 5 inspection that found "cows and bulls dragging on equipment wash platform" in around the pre-break room, improper sanitation of the saw used to cut the necks of the animals, "necks and shanks" pulled over buckets of inedible byproducts, use of unlabelled sanitary spray bottles and contamination of carcasses. Followup inspections found continued problems.

A June 6 inspection found improper poor monintoring of product labelling, and missing labels and paperwork for pallets and boxes of meat.

A June 26 inspection that found workers were not properly washing cutting tools and hooks while cutting carcasses, and not cleaning contaminated carcasses before cutting them. The report says production was stopped for three minutes while "team members were removed and retrained before continuing." Another employee who was not sanitizing a knife between cuts through a hide was "removed and replaced."

An Aug. 7 CAR report showed production was stopped for 35 minutes "for water dripping on carcasses" in the carcass-cooling room from "condensation formed and dripping from rails, pipes, refer drip pans and structure." The report says 315 carcasses were held back. In a followup inspection three days later, the CFIA inspector identified "plastic (sic) overflowing with unsanitary water and condensation dripping from rails/structures" in the killing room, and "initiated action to hold 765 carcasses from start of production until time of incident."

An Aug. 20 inspection raised concerns about employees' sanitation practices and sanitary conditions on cutting tools, computers, cutting boards, trim stations and floor areas.

The CFIA reports list both immediate actions taken by inspectors and followup plans to meet the corrective actions.

The followup reports indicate all six CARs were closed within four or five weeks of the orders being issued, and most involved retraining and interviewing of employees to ensure they understood proper sanitation and operational procedures.

In a statement issued Tuesday, the CFIA said "all of these CARs were effectively addressed by the company and were closed within the time-frame required by the CFIA."

"CFIA inspectors are in constant communication with plant management throughout the production day at federally registered meat establishments. When an inspector observes a potential issue of concern, they inform plant management," the statement said.

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