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Tougher food-safety rules in the works: Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz

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SASKATOON - Canada's food watchdog is planning to impose tougher rules to deal with the threat of E. coli in slaughterhouses.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz says the Canadian Food Inspection Agency will strengthen E. coli testing in federally inspected establishments that use raw beef. Testing will increase between April and October — considered barbecue season.

Meat packers will also have to provide production and distribution information on demand and in a standardized format. Ritz says that will help speed up the food agency's ability to trace products during investigations and recalls.

"We've seen instances here and around the world where you've traced the wrong product and, of course, the one that has gone bad is still out there infecting people," Ritz said at a news conference Friday.

"So this gives us more tools, more oversight, gives the CFIA stronger regulatory powers to make sure that the documents they get from the company are timely ... (so) they can actually start to work on it immediately."

The changes come after a tainted beef crisis at a southern Alberta beef plant last year.

XL Foods Lakeside in Brooks was shut down for about a month when E. coli was found in beef processed there. The discovery led to the largest beef recall in Canadian history. Eighteen people became sick from eating meat linked to the plant.

The plant has since been taken over by a Brazilian company.

"Certainly no one wants a repeat of any of the major recalls we've had in this country," said Ritz.

"Can we guarantee there'll never be anymore? No. Anybody that tells you you can is lying to you. It wouldn't matter how much money, how many people you have on the lines, there's too many moving parts to guarantee an absolute. But at the end of the day, we want to take every precaution we can."

There will also be new labelling requirements.

Plants that produce mechanically tenderized beef cuts, such as steaks or roasts, will have to label them as such and include cooking instructions so people know they must cook the meat beyond rare in the middle.

"It's common sense, but it needs to be out there," said Ritz.

Mechanical tenderizers push into the centre of a cut and can carry any E. coli that may be on the surface further into the meat.

Health Canada also intends to propose broader mandatory labels to identify beef that has been mechanically tenderized at retail outlets such as supermarkets. A voluntary practice has been in place since 2012.

The Canadian Cattlemen's Association said the new rules will strengthen food safety.

"The CCA is passionate about reducing E. coli and these new controls will enhance industry efforts in the fight against E. coli," association president Martin Unrau said in a news release.

Unrau also pushed for irradiation. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency describes irradiation as exposing food to energy called "ionizing radiation." It can penetrate food to kill micro-organisms.

Onions, potatoes, wheat, flour, whole wheat flour, whole or ground spices and dehydrated seasonings currently are approved for irradiation and sale in Canada.

"The (cattlemen's association) believes irradiation, when used with food safety interventions already in use, could essentially eliminate E.-coli-related illness associated with ground beef," said Unrau.

The food inspection agency will soon begin a two-year review of the country's food regulations to ensure they are in line with the Safe Food for Canadians Act passed last year. The legislation melded four sets of food inspection regulations to ensure consistent rules and inspections.

Ritz said the agency will consult consumers and industry as it works on food safety improvements.

The cattlemen's association said it hopes to gain approval for beef irradiation during that time.

— By Jennifer Graham in Regina, with files from Chris Purdy in Edmonton

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