CALGARY – It was largely symbolic, but one year after the largest meat recall in Canadian history, the city of Brooks in southeastern Alberta held a celebration to mark the turning of a page.
A huge beef barbecue on Saturday was the first major community gathering since Brooks was plunged into months of economic uncertainty when U.S. food inspectors found E. coli bacteria in a shipment of beef from the XL Foods plant.
“When this began we said when this gets done and it’s over we should have a get-together and celebrate Alberta beef,” said Brooks Mayor Martin Shields.
“It was a tough, tough go, but now that … we think it’s on solid ground, we’re celebrating the industry in our community.”
The United States quickly closed its border last September to beef from the plant, which slaughtered up to 40 per cent of Canada’s cattle. Canadian officials then shut the plant down and sent 2,200 workers home.
In the weeks that followed, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency pulled back more than 2,000 products across the country involving millions of kilograms of beef.
U.S. food safety regulators announced a similar recall of products in more than 30 states.
There were 18 confirmed cases of people who became sick in Canada from a specific and potentially deadly strain of E. coli linked to XL Foods beef. A civil lawsuit was filed.
Brazilian-based meat-packing giant JBS USA took over management of the Brooks plant from Nilsson Bros. in October and completed its purchase of XL Foods in January. The sale included the plant in Brooks, a beef-packing plant in Calgary, a feedlot in Brooks and adjacent farmland that supports the feedlot operation.
The plant now employs 2,400 workers and processes 3,800 cattle each day. Products are shipped to customers in Canada, the U.S., Egypt, Asia and Mexico.
Despite the regained stability, there is still some concern from employees and Brooks residents that something similar could happen again, Shields said.
“You hear the word E. coli and you hear people going, ‘Are we going to be facing that again?'” said Shields.
“You know anxiety is still there in the sense of what happened and it’s still close to the surface.”
The uncertainty related to the recall dealt a blow to Canadian cattle producers. Dennis Laycraft from the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association estimates it cost the industry up to $27 million directly because producers had to move cattle further, couldn’t get them processed and pushed prices down.
“Quite clearly there were some significant losses particularly in the feeding sector,” said Laycraft, the association’s executive vice-president.
“Fortunately we saw demand go up last year in Canada, but it probably would have been even higher without the incident in Brooks.”
Laycraft said now that a year has passed, the recall’s effects are no longer a problem. But he said the lasting legacy for producers is a change in the beef-packing ownership structure.
“The lingering impact is the fact we lost another bidder out of the system. JBS has been a customer of Canadian cattle for a number of years and now it’s JBS and Cargill bidding where in the past it was JBS, Cargill, Nilsson Bros. and a few others.”