XL Foods says safety problems fixed at Alberta beef plant, regrets illnesses

EDMONTON - The owners of an Alberta plant behind a massive recall of beef products say they have fixed the problems that forced food safety officials to shut the meat packer down over E. coli concerns.

EDMONTON – The owners of an Alberta plant behind a massive recall of beef products say they have fixed the problems that forced food safety officials to shut the meat packer down over E. coli concerns.

Brian Nilsson, co-CEO of XL Foods Inc., said the company welcomes Canadian Food Inspection Agency staff who were in Brooks, Alta., on Tuesday for a pre-inspection of the facility that processes more than one-third of Canada’s beef.

“We have worked diligently to address all corrective actions,” Nilsson said in a release.

“We will continue to work co-operatively with the CFIA as they conduct due diligence and verification of our intensified and enhanced food systems.”

Problems cited by inspectors after the CFIA revoked the plant’s operating licence Sept. 27 included management of E. coli risk, maintenance and sanitation. The U.S. stopped accepting shipments of beef from the company Sept. 13.

XL Foods also made reference to people who have become sick from eating beef, but did not directly mention the 11 people in four provinces who were infected by a strain of E. coli that has been linked to the plant.

“All the members of the XL community deeply regret the illnesses caused by the consumption of beef products,” read the release. “Our thoughts are with the affected people at this time.”

Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said the pre-inspection is only the first of several stages XL Foods must go through before the plant will be allowed to resume operating. He said no date has been set for it to reopen.

“We want to make sure that this is safe beyond reproach,” he said. “It will not be allowed to reopen until the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has confirmed that.”

In recent weeks more than 1,800 XL Foods products have been recalled across Canada along with more than 1.1 million kilograms of beef exported to the U.S. and 20 other countries.

Martin Unrau, president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, said the E. coli scare has given Canadian beef a black eye with some consumers despite what he called the high quality of cattle raised by producers.

Unrau said the plant closure is preventing many of the association’s 83,000 members from sending their prime cattle and older cull cows to market. It has also driven down prices.

As eager as producers are for the XL Foods plant to reopen, Unrau said they want federal inspectors to take the time to ensure the plant is properly following E. coli safety rules.

“Last Thursday I thought it would open this week. Today I don’t think it will,” Unrau said from his cow-calf operation near MacGregor, Man.

“There are a few steps that have to be followed to get things done in a proper manner so consumers once again have the confidence in the product that comes out of that plant.

“We have to ensure that the product produced in that plant is safe.”

Simply allowing the plant to reopen will not solve all of the problems that the XL Foods recall and plant closure have caused the beef industry.

The CFIA and the company must apply to the U.S. government for permission to resume exporting beef from the plant to the key American market.

Officials estimate the Brooks facility sends about 60 per cent of the beef it slaughters to the United States. More than two dozen retails chains in more than 30 states are involved in the beef recall.

Unrau said the beef industry and XL Foods will also have to work to woo back consumers and retail chains that may have become leery of Canadian beef.

“The challenge for us is to get the Americans to be comfortable with the product that we are selling,” he said. “The second thing is ensuring the retail markets that were there before are still there.”

The union that represents 2,000 people who work at the plant has called a news conference for Wednesday to talk about what it calls the desperate need to improve food safety rules.

Doug O’Halloran of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 said issues such as the use of temporary foreign workers and the pace of work at the plant must be dealt with.

“They’re going to be back at work in a few days, but nothing has been done to address the issues that led to this problem,” he said.