Despite new warnings by the XL Foods workers’ union that the company’s food safety culture is “broken,” the processor – which has been closed for several days after sparking a massive beef recall and being linked to a dozen E. coli O157:H7 illnesses – was allowed to partially resume operations Thursday.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is allowing the company to process a few thousand carcasses that have tested negative for E. coli, but product from the facility cannot yet enter commerce. The partial reopening is the next step in the CFIA’s evaluation of the plant, which is one of the largest beef production facilities in Canada.
Right as the news broke, Brian Nilsson, who serves as co-CEO of XL Foods with his brother Lee Nilsson, apologized for the outbreak and told Canadian press that his company is doubling down on its commitment to food safety.
“We absolutely take full responsibility and apologize to all those affected,” Nilsson said. “We’re totally committed to making sure that this doesn’t happen again and investing and doing what is necessary to bring that forward.”
Union leaders for the Alberta plant, which employs around 2,200 people, painted a different picture this week. They say that food safety troubles at XL Foods run deep. Doug O’Halloran, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 is calling for a public inquiry into the company’s recent issues with E. coli.
In a press conference Wednesday, O’Halloran repeatedly said that XL Foods executives have put “quantity over quality” and ignored critical sanitation concerns, all while ramping up line speeds. He didn’t blame CFIA inspectors, who he believes lack authority, but said the agency couldn’t be trusted to do the inquiry because they are “part of the problem.”
“The workers at XL want to be part of the solution. They want to be proud of the product they produce,” said O’Halloran. “They’ve replaced the steel, they’ve replaced the aluminum, but… the employer needs to deal with what we feel is a broken food safety culture.”
Labor leaders alleged that training is inadequate, especially considering that a large number of workers are new immigrants or temporary workers, many of whom speak limited English. They called for CFIA to take a more strong-handed approach to regulating the meat industry.
“Our government has to do more than act as cheerleaders for the industry,” said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labor. “They work for the public not the packers.”
Nilsson responded to the union’s criticisms: “I am saddened that the UFCW has chosen to attack the workmanship of its many members. We have extensive training programs for new workers and hold our workers in the highest regard for their abilities.”
One thing everyone in Alberta seems to agree on is that the local community needs XL Foods to deal with its food safety issues and start operating again. The local beef industry contributes $1.6 billion to Alberta’s economy.
“It’s tragic that we had to have this situation,” said O’Halloran, “But I think in the long run we’re going to have an industry that’s better, that’s greater.”
“We’re hoping that the public won’t go quietly into the night on this issue,” he added. “We hope they demand better food safety.”
On Thursday, local media reported that British Columbia is investigating another E. coli O157:H7 infection, after its first case was linked to XL Foods last week. If confirmed, this case would bring the outbreak count to 13. On the U.S. side, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell Food Safety News that the agency is not aware of any illnesses linked to the Canadian outbreak.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service recently estimated that around 2.5 million pounds of beef from the XL Foods recall — – used to produce steaks, roasts, mechanically tenderized steaks and roasts, and ground beef — was imported into the U.S., but it’s not clear what percentage of that was pulled before reaching consumers.
© Food Safety News