Canada's second-largest meat processing plant will resume partial operations Tuesday after a bizarre weekend standoff that saw XL Foods lay off its entire work force on Saturday, and then recall more than a third of them the next day.
By the end of the day Sunday, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency indicated the Brooks, Alta. plant – which was shut down Sept. 27 due to E. coli contamination – could be back to full processing within a week and be shipping meat to consumers across North America within 10 days.
Already hammered for its handling of Canada's largest meat recall in history, family owned XL Foods added fuel to the fire on Saturday when it suddenly announced it was closing its doors and laying off its 2,000 workers, many of whom are recent immigrants working for low wages with little savings to fall back on.
Some representatives of the cattle industry feared a drawn-out impasse that would impose severe economic losses on the beef ranchers.
In a terse statement, XL's co-chief executive Brian Nilsson blamed the federal inspection agency (CFIA) for the closing, saying it had not provided a "definitive timeline" for relicensing the plant and that the uncertainty made it impossible for the company to continue paying its workers. The shutdown prompted a union leader to suggest the company was attempting to strong-arm the government into moving more quickly to reopen the plant.
Mr. Nilsson did an abrupt about-face on Sunday afternoon, announcing that 800 employees would return to work on Tuesday to complete the processing of the 5,100 carcasses that had been stored at the facility. That work will be done under watchful eyes of an enhanced federal inspection team to determine whether the operations can proceed at full speed without a recurrence of the E. coli contamination that has sickened 15 Canadians.
"We look forward to actively working with CFIA to bring this to a viable and timely resolution to allow the plant to recommence operations." Mr. Nilsson said in a statement. The Nilsson family, which owns XL Foods, has been virtually invisible through the crisis, communicating to the local community, the cattle industry and their consumers primarily through brief news releases.
The Brooks plant is not only the largest employer in the city of 14,000 in southeastern Alberta, it is key to the fortunes of the Western beef industry, processing a third of Canada's beef for both domestic consumers and export. Its shutdown has forced beef farmers to drop their cattle prices dramatically in order to sell to XL's competitor, Cargill Inc., or ship their livestock to slaughterhouses in the United States.
Its licence was suspended on Sept. 27 after several Canadians got E. coli poisoning from meat shipped from the plant, and inspectors determined its food safety was inadequate. The CFIA followed up with the largest meat recall in Canadian history, though the agency has been criticized for only closing the plant two weeks after E. coli was first detected.
Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz welcomed the news that XL Foods would resume the work required to satisfy the CFIA and get relicensed.
"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," Mr. Ritz said in a release Sunday.
CFIA officials insist they made no changes to the plan laid out last Thursday, – which the company agreed to – and which provided a seven-day licence to allow inspectors to ensure XL operating procedures were applied in an effective manner.
"With their decision [announced Saturday] that they were not going to complete that activity, we reiterated to them that until the plant is able to demonstrate to us effectively that these operation controls, at their normal operating speeds, are effective then we're not in a position to grant them a licence to return to normal business," said Brian Evans, special adviser to the CFIA president.
Mr. Evans said there was no disagreement or problems with its inspectors in the plant on Saturday that would have prompted the shutdown, and said he was stunned when he learned of it that morning. But with XL's plan to run one shift, the agency is still confident it can complete its review within a week, assuming the plant meets all the requirements. At that point, the plant can begin slaughtering cattle again.
However, the CFIA will not allow any meat to be shipped out until it is satisfied that the entire operation is safe, he said.