BROOKS, Alta. – A beef processing plant that has been at the centre of a massive recall announced the temporary layoff Saturday of approximately 2,000 people.
The XL Foods facility has been idle since Sept. 27 while federal officials and the company deal with E. coli contamination that has been linked to 15 illnesses and has involved a recall of its products from across North America.
A company news release said its employees have been receiving full pay for the past three weeks, but the temporary layoffs are necessary because the Canadian Food Inspection Agency can’t indicate when the plant will get its license back.
“We have paid our valued team members out of a commitment to our workforce and to assist them through this difficult time,” Brian Nilsson, co-CEO of XL, said in the news release.
“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. We are hopeful that the CFIA will bring this to a swift and viable resolution.”
The CFIA approved a limited reopening but said no meat could leave the facility until it has approved a full reopening.
In a statement late Saturday, the CFIA said it had been overseeing the cutting of carcasses in the plant that had tested negative for E. coli, but it said the company decided to stop operations after cutting only about half the carcasses, and as a result, the agency said it was unable to complete its assessment.
A spokesperson for Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said the halt to operations was directly linked to the layoffs.
“Their decision to lay off workers results in them not being able to continue with the CFIA assessment,” Meagan Murdoch said in an email.
Ritz said his thoughts are with the workers and the community that are affected by the “private sector business decision” by X-L Foods. He said CFIA inspectors are working diligently to ensure all safety issues at the Brooks plant are corrected.
“Today’s news does not change our government’s commitment to ensuring safe food for Canadian consumers,” Ritz said in a statement.
XL Foods did not immediately respond when asked to comment on the CFIA statement.
The CFIA said it is ready to continue its assessment as soon as the company resumes activities.
“We need to observe the plant’s E. coli controls in action, so this activity is a critical element in our assessment of the company’s E. coli safeguards,” the CFIA statement said.
“We recognize that the company wants to return to normal operations as soon as possible, but the CFIA has a responsibility to assure consumers that the plant can produce safe food.”
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.
On Thursday, the CFIA announced the first stage of what it called a progressive restart of the plant. The agency allowed workers in the plant to cut meat from 5,100 beef carcasses under increased supervision and tougher E. coli testing standards. No new animals were to be slaughtered.
There were to be more tests of meat samples and increased monitoring of sanitation and hygiene, the CFIA said.
The CFIA has given no timeline for when the Brooks plant will be allowed to accept cattle again or sell its products across Canada and abroad.
The president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union local 401, which represents the employees at the plant, called the announcement of layoffs “poor management.”
Doug O’Halloran said that several hundred of the laid off workers may be forced to leave Brooks, which he said would create problems once the CFIA allows XL to resume normal operations.
“One of the problems in the past is that they don’t have enough workers to operate the plant at full speed, and that has caused some of the issues that led to this,” said O’Halloran.
O’Halloran said the union will begin helping employees apply for employment insurance on Monday. And he said if the layoffs continue beyond a week, the union will look at opening a food bank in Brooks.
Brooks Mayor Martin Shields said the layoff announcement was a body blow to the community, but he remained hopeful the pain will be short-lived.
”OK we’re at the brink, and you take a deep breath and say OK, temporary means that we’ve got some people that are in a stressful situation and hopefully that’s short term and the plant is back in operation as soon as possible,” he said.
Shields added that his first concern was to ensure the laid off workers start receiving Employment Insurance benefits as quickly as possible.