WINNIPEG, Manitoba, Oct 18 (Reuters) - The Canadian government said on Thursday that management changes at the plant responsible for one of the country's biggest-ever meat recalls would not affect its nearly completed review, as the new operator touted a strong safety record at other plants.
Canadian food inspectors are set to recommend this week when or whether XL Foods' Lakeside beef processing plant in Brooks, Alberta, can reopen after an E. coli contamination that sickened 15 people in Canada and prompted the recall of millions of pounds of beef.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), which pulled privately held XL Foods' operating license on Sept. 27, said "any change in management or ownership at XL will not affect our assessment."
JBS USA, a subsidiary of Brazil-based JBS SA , said late Wednesday it signed a deal with XL Foods to manage the Brooks plant and had an option to purchase the Canadian and U.S. operations of XL Foods for $50 million in cash and $50 million in JBS SA shares.
The company, which would not assume XL Foods' debt or liabilities, said it would examine events carefully to work out what went wrong at the plant, which can process up to 4,500 head of cattle a day.
"We're going to have to sit down with XL and understand what has occurred in that facility to date and bring our expertise to assist in that situation," JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett said on Thursday.
"We have a very successful food safety track record and robust food safety program and we think that will be an asset to the facility."
JBS has not decided on any specific changes on how the plant will run, he said.
The CFIA this week reviewed the steps XL Foods had taken to improve food safety.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, who has been under fire for the government's handling of the beef recall, also suggested nothing will change in the review timeline.
"Canadian consumers can be assured that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency will enforce the same rigorous food safety standards at Lakeside facility regardless of the management," Ritz said in an email statement.
"(CFIA) has concluded their last stage of review and I look forward to receiving their report which will outline the next steps for this facility."
JBS has also produced beef contaminated with E. coli. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service in 2009 recalled beef produced by JBS Swift. Twenty-three people in the United States were infected.
JBS, which could be making its first purchase of a processing facility in Canada, will decide whether to buy within six months, Bruett said.
He would not say when the company began discussions with XL Foods.