Inspections at beef plant at centre of E.coli outbreak halted amid layoffs

OTTAWA - Federal inspectors and the meat processing company at the centre of an E. coli outbreak have come to an impasse, and the Official Opposition says the agriculture minister should be taking action to break it.

OTTAWA – Federal inspectors and the meat processing company at the centre of an E. coli outbreak have come to an impasse, and the Official Opposition says the agriculture minister should be taking action to break it.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s (CFIA) review of the processing at XL Foods ground to a halt this weekend when the firm announced it was temporarily laying off 2,000 workers.

The Brooks, Alta.-based company blamed the decision on the fact the federal government hadn’t given it a firm date for when it would get its license back in order to fully resume operations.

“XL Foods is committed to the best interests of the cattle industry, our employees, the city of Brooks and all affected by the idling of the Brooks facility,” Brian Nilsson, co-CEO of XL, said in a news release.

“We are hopeful that the CFIA will bring this to a swift and viable resolution.”

Lee Nilsson, fellow co-CEO, also made a pointed reference to the federal agency in an interview Friday with the Alberta Farmer Express.

“I know it’s caused a great amount of turmoil in the beef community. I’d just like to say hang on because all things will pass, but at this point there seems to be an uncertainty as to which direction CFIA is going with regard to E. coli at my plant, or any other plant in the country,” Nilsson said.

NDP Agriculture critic Malcolm Allen said Sunday that Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz should be stepping in.

“It seems at this stage, with all that’s happened, the minister ought to be requesting to talk to the Nilsson brothers, the head of this corporation, and say, ‘OK, what’s up? What’s happening here?”‘ said Allen.

“We’ve got 2,000 workers who are now unemployed, and we’ve got ranchers across this country who are saying, ‘What’s happening to our beef industry? Where are we with this?’ I think Minister Ritz has to be a little more proactive than simply saying, it’s their decision, nothing I can do.”

Ritz shot back at the NDP Sunday, suggesting the party “would prefer to play politics with food safety.”

“Consumer confidence is critical for Canada’s beef industry, and that’s why we won’t compromise when it comes to the safety of Canadians’ food,” Ritz said in an emailed statement Sunday.

“The Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s food safety inspectors are working diligently to ensure that all safety issues at the Brooks plant are corrected. We encourage XL Foods to continue with this effort.”

The layoffs come as food inspectors were halfway through their assessment of XL’s processing of 5,100 beef carcasses already stored at the facility in Brooks.

CFIA spokesman Guy Gravelle told The Canadian Press that the agency needed to examine all the different ways that the carcasses were handled at every stage of the process, and to ensure that all employees were clear on the proper handling methods.

But once XL Foods announced the layoffs, that process ended.

“There’s nothing for us to review or inspect,” Gravelle said Sunday.

“Right now it’s on hold, and where it goes from here is totally dependent on the company,” he added.

Doug O’Halloran, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union local 401, which represents the employees at the plant, said management has bungled the entire situation.

“Again, it’s just chaos, and I guess it begs the question, is there something further wrong with the XL Plant that they’re not sharing, because why would you lay these people off who may go get other jobs if you need these workers when the plant fully reopens?” said O’Halloran. “It doesn’t make any business sense.”

O’Halloran said the workers were completely caught by surprise.

“They’re just devastated. They’re in shock. We were all happy, it was back on track, it looked like the plant would be up and running to some degree the first of the week, and start slaughtering,” he said.

“They’re left trying to make decisions: ‘Do I try to get a job elsewhere? Do I try to wait this out?’ The people in Brooks are like a lot of other Canadians who live paycheque to paycheque.”

The XL Foods plant is the second-largest meat packer in the country and slaughters and processes more than one-third of Canada’s beef. The impact of the plant closure is causing a ripple effect in the cattle industry, where farmers are waiting to sell off their herds.

The plant’s license was suspended on Sept. 27 after the CFIA determined that food safety controls at XL Foods were inadequate. The agency has also put out food recall notices for products that originated at XL Foods and were distributed across North America.