About 2,000 workers at XL Foods' beleaguered Brooks' Alta. beef packing plant were served temporary layoff notices Saturday, with the company's owners blaming "uncertainty" over when the plant can resume full operations.
Work had just resumed Thursday at XL's Lakeside Packers, one of Canada's largest beef plants, as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) gave the all-clear for workers to process the plant's estimated 5,100 uncontaminated carcasses.
The carcasses had been in cold storage since CFIA suspended the plant's license on Sept. 27, during an ongoing and now-massive recall of beef products and primal cuts shipped from XL to processors and retailers in both Canada and the U.S., dating back to Sept. 4.
The recall stems from detection of O157:H7, one of the more toxic varieties of E. coli bacteria, in some samples of beef from the plant. As of Friday, the Public Health Agency of Canada has logged 15 cases of illness in people across four provinces linked to products from XL and the ongoing food safety investigation. One of those, a new case in British Columbia, involves a visitor to Canada.
Under the terms of Lakeside's resumed operation Thursday, beef products from the 5,100 carcasses would remain detained, and no cattle would be brought in for slaughter.
"The speed at which XL Foods Inc. begins normal operations is solely dependent on their ability to demonstrate that they can produce safe food," CFIA said in a release Saturday.
"On Friday and Saturday, we oversaw the cutting of carcases in the plant that had tested negative for E. coli by the CFIA," the agency said. "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."
However, CFIA said Saturday, "the company decided to stop operations after only cutting about half the carcasses."
"At this time, we are unable to complete our assessment," the agency said, but it will continue "as soon as the company resumes activities."
Despite the issuing of the temporary license to resume processing of carcasses, XL said in a separate release Saturday that CFIA "has not provided a definitive timeline for relicensing of the Brooks, Alta. facility. It is this uncertainty that has forced the temporary layoffs."
XL did not say how long the layoffs announced Saturday will last, but added the company looks forward to "actively working with the CFIA to bring this to a viable and timely resolution to allow the plant to recommence operations."
In an interview last week with Alberta Farmer's Sheri Monk, XL co-CEO Lee Nilsson said he doesn't know the cost yet for the corrective actions the plant has taken to regain full CFIA approval, but described it as substantial.
"As far as going forward, we really don't know because we don't know what new rules are waiting for us and I'm uncertain of what that brings," he said.
For the past three weeks, co-CEO Brian Nilsson said in Saturday's release, "employees have received full pay on their 32-hour weekly guarantee with few scheduled shifts available. We have paid our valued team members out of a commitment to our workforce and to assist them through this difficult time."
The Calgary Herald's online edition on Saturday quoted United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 president Doug O'Halloran as saying maintenance workers would continue reporting to work, but otherwise the layoffs would affect most of the plant's 2,200 staff.
XL, he said, 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."
For his part, federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, whose portfolio includes CFIA oversight, said in a separate statement Saturday that his thoughts "are with the workers and the community affected by this private sector business decision."
However, he added, "Today's news does not change our government's commitment to ensuring safe food for Canadian consumers."
CFIA reiterated Saturday that no products from Lakeside will enter the marketplace until the agency is "fully confident that the plant's food safety controls are working effectively."
CFIA added it has authorized, starting Monday, the "controlled movement" of some meat products now under detention at Lakeside to go for rendering, and "none of the rendered material will enter the food system."
"Hang on, all things will pass": XL chief Nilsson, Oct. 12, 2012
Beef processing resumes at XL plant under lockdown, Oct. 11, 2012
XL found lacking in E. coli documentation, beard nets, Oct. 9, 2012
CFIA yanks license for XL's Brooks beef plant, Sept. 28, 2012