The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) confirms it is to be audited later this month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for the first time in three years.

The agency says the USDA audit is to include a visit by U.S. inspectors to the XL Foods beef packer in Brooks, Alberta, the site of a massive meat recall prompted by an E. coli scare. A strain of the bacteria linked to XL has made 15 people in four provinces sick.

Guy Gravelle, a CFIA spokesman, says the audit has been planned for months and was not prompted by the recall.

But he explains that it could play a role in whether XL will be allowed to resume beef exports to the United States if the plant gets relicensed by the CFIA to fully operate again.

“If they have recently visited the facility and have deemed that it has met their standards for food safety and guidelines, I would imagine it would be fairly straightforward for them to accept the fact that it meets the standards that it requires before product is exported there,” Gravelle says.

Canada suspended the XL plant's permit to export beef products into the United States on Sept. 13 at the request of the USDA because of E. coli contamination concerns.

The U.S. is a key market for the company. The XL Foods recall south of the border involved more than 1.1 million kilograms of beef sold by 23 grocery store chains in more than 30 states.

CFIA has announced the first stage of what it called a progressive restart of the plant that was shut down on Sept. 27.

The agency is allowing workers in the plant to cut meat from 5,100 beef carcasses under increased supervision and tougher E. coli testing standards, but no meat can leave the facility.

Gravelle says processing has started; however, test results from the meat won't be available until sometime this week.

The CFIA has given no timeline on when the plant might be allowed to accept live cattle again or ship beef products to market.

“When and if the plant's operating licence is reinstated, XL Foods may request access to the U.S. market again,” he says.

The USDA audit may involve visits to other beef plants, as well as poultry and pork facilities.

Canada exported more than $4 billion worth of beef and pork in 2010, much of it to the United States.