(Reuters) - Test samples from the XL Foods meat plant in Alberta have come back negative for E. coli bacteria, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) said on Friday, moving closer to a decision on whether to reopen the plant, which the agency closed because some of the plant's beef products were contaminated.
Inspection officials tested meat from 5,000 carcasses that were in the Brooks, Alberta, plant before CFIA shut it down.
CFIA plans to finalize its recommendations on the plant's reopening over the weekend after further review of its bacterial controls.
"We must remain focused on the need to protect consumers," said Paul Mayers, associate vice president of programs for CFIA.
The plant has been closed since September 27 after producing beef contaminated with E. coli bacteria that sickened at least 16 people in Canada.
E. coli bacteria can cause illness, or even death, and symptoms include severe stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea. Cooking meat to the correct internal temperature kills the bacteria.
Millions of pounds of beef products have been recalled across Canada and in most U.S. states.
The recalled beef will be thrown out, rendered or cooked and used in frozen foods or soups, said Harpreet Kochhar, executive director of Western Canadian operations for CFIA.
The reprocessed product will not re-enter the food supply unless it is re-tested and found safe, he said.
Reprocessing the recalled products is a safe practice since the meat will be cooked, said Rick Holley, a microbiologist at the University of Manitoba.
The recalled meat is under government control in various storage sites.
The CFIA also said there is another 12 million pounds of beef from a variety of production dates in storage at XL facilities under government control. XL Foods' options for that meat include rendering or cooking it before further testing, but the company has not told CFIA what it hopes to do.
"We will consider any plan that the company presents and we will assess it relative to the ability to provide assurance that product that is available to consumers is acceptable and the safety of consumers is protected," Mayers said.
JBS USA, a unit of Brazilian meat giant JBS SA, took over management of the plant this week and holds an option to buy the Canadian and U.S. operations of privately held XL Foods for $50 million in cash and $50 million in JBS SA shares.
Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz; and Peter Galloway