XL Foods Ltd. worker Jimmy Zhou had heard the good news. All 2,200 labourers who toil in one of Canada's largest slaughterhouses on the edge of Brooks would be back to work in days as the plant's operating licence, suspended nearly a month ago amid an E. coli outbreak and the country's largest beef recall to date, was set to be restored.
Still, the father of two young boys was feeling uneasy.
XL's Lakeside meat processing plant has experienced a major economic and food safety blow. Even with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency giving XL the go-ahead Tuesday to restart production after a lengthy safety review, there are many hurdles and uncertainty ahead. It's not yet known whether Lakeside can recover to full strength, slaughtering as many as 4,000 cows a day for customers around the world.
"We don't know too much about where the plant will go," Mr. Zhou, 38, said as he and others gathered at a church for a free dinner to help struggling XL workers. One concern is whether the plant will need as many employees as before. "Everybody is worried about the future."
In deciding to restore XL's licence, the CFIA said it is confident all problems at Lakeside have been addressed. Its ruling, however, comes with a list of conditions: The plant won't be allowed to run full tilt until the inspection agency believes the facility is ready. Lakeside's ability to export to the U.S. remains suspended for now.
CFIA vice-president Paul Mayers said the agency will ramp up oversight of the plant, increasing inspections at important stages of production and E. coli testing of meat. Two additional federal inspectors have been assigned to the plant, raising the total to 48, split between two shifts.
However, many questions remain about how food-safety problems at the plant were handled by both the company and the country's inspection agency. Two XL shipments of raw-beef trimmings tested positive for E. coli O157:H7 on Sept. 4, but a public health alert wasn't issued until nearly two weeks later.
By the time the plant's licence was suspended on Sept. 27, more than 20 countries had received recalled XL beef products. At least 16 Canadians in four provinces have been sickened by E. coli after eating meat from the Alberta slaughterhouse.
The CFIA has asked its expert advisory committee to review circumstances surrounding the recall. The committee's report will be made public. Through its investigation, the food-inspection agency found that a combination of deficiencies, including inconsistent trend analysis for E. coli, played a role in the XL food scare.
University of Guelph food science professor Keith Warriner believes a review is needed but argues it should be completely independent of the CFIA. The expert advisory committee is chaired by CFIA president George Da Pont and includes government and industry representatives, as well as academics specializing in food safety. The union representing XL's Lakeside workers is calling for a public inquiry.
"In reality, this was a bigger issue than just E. coli on beef," Dr. Warriner said. "What this incident really revealed is inadequacies of ... the ability of a processor to oversee its own food-safety program.
"But probably more worrying was it demonstrated how the CFIA, whose only job is to ensure food safety, weren't doing their job correctly."
Dr. Warriner said the beef recall has been a communications disaster. Co-CEOs of Edmonton-based XL Foods, brothers Brian and Lee Nilsson, have largely stayed silent throughout the food safety investigation and temporary layoffs of their workers. The company did not respond Tuesday to a request for an interview or statement.
JBS USA, which last week took over management of the embattled Lakeside processing plant, has also not responded to interview requests over the past few days. XL, a privately held company, has given JBS USA, a subsidiary of Brazilian food giant JBS S.A., the exclusive option to purchase the Lakeside slaughterhouse and other properties for $50-million (U.S.) in cash and $50-million in JBS S.A. shares.
If the deal moves forward, it would give JBS a significant foothold in Canada and offer the small city of Brooks a large measure of relief. The Lakeside plant is an economic engine in the region and the largest employer by far, with many of its workers recent immigrants or temporary foreign labourers. In a city with a population of 13,500, the temporary shuttering of Lakeside and subsequent layoffs were a big blow.
"This has been a long month," said Brooks Mayor Martin Shields. "There is a light now at the end of the tunnel."
XL workers are set to begin training at the plant on Wednesday. They've been told to report for work on Oct. 29.
Like Mr. Zhou, the Brooks mayor is worried about what lies ahead for the Lakeside plant. If JBS USA decides against purchasing the slaughterhouse, will there be other buyers, Mr. Shields wonders.
The plant is crucial to Canada's cattle industry, which welcomed Tuesday's relicensing. More than 80 per cent of Canada's beef processing is handled by XL and Cargill's slaughterhouse in High River, south of Calgary.
"This plant is going to be here," assured Doug O'Halloran, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, repre- senting XL workers. "It's too big a part of Alberta not to be here."