XL Foods co-CEO Lee Nilsson says the company has done everything within its power to work with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
XL’s Lakeside plant at Brooks, Alta., which slaughters about 40 per cent of Canadian cattle, has been closed since Sept. 27 due to E. coli contamination, leading to 12 confirmed cases of illness and a wide-ranging product recall.
"They requested information and we have given it from the very start in a very timely fashion," Nilsson said in an interview. "We have done nothing but co-operate 100 per cent. We’ve had a crew dedicated to it, and team members that have gone through many, many long-houred days to make sure that we fully facilitate and co-operate with the CFIA."
On Oct. 11 the plant was given permission to process carcasses that were hung to be aged before it was shut down, and which have tested negative for E. coli. However there has been no indication when the plant will be allowed to resume slaughter.
Nilsson says he doesn’t know the cost yet for the corrective actions the plant has undertaken in an effort to regain CFIA’s approval, but he says it’s substantial.
The president of UFCW Local 401 has claimed that faster line speeds at the plant were causing increasing worker injuries and putting the safety protocol at risk.
Nilsson said the plant had been running at a line speed of 280 animals per hour, which isn’t as fast as regulations permit.
"If we were to be measured against all the plants in North America… probably a true economist would ask us why we weren’t running a little bit faster."
Though the plant’s 2,200 workers haven’t been to work for two weeks, they’ve still been paid for their 32-hour work week as per their contract, but Nilsson said he is not sure how long that will continue.
"At this point they have been called back to fabricate these carcasses the CFIA has given us permission to do. 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, adding he has no idea when the plant will be re-listed and fully functional again.
"It’s been day-by-day with a lot of questions about when, and what if, and how it will be. Certainly, I have no shortage of questions.I say ‘soon,’ but I say that with reservation."
The Alberta-based company has been criticized for only speaking to the media through press releases. Nilsson said in retrospect, there may have been a better way to handle it, the company was focused on the actual problem.
"From the start, our No. 1 priority was to get the CFIA all the information they wanted, and to co-operate with whatever they wanted. It probably would have made for great reading, but we never felt that at any time it was appropriate to have a debate in the media, and there was no time for that. We were focused on going forward, getting this resolved, and that has been our focus from the very start."
The CFIA has said XL failed to provide information or to make corrective actions as quickly as needed, but Nilsson says the company has moved as fast as it can.
"I challenge anyone in the CFIA to show where we did not co-operate or where we hid something — that just wasn’t the truth. There was absolutely no resistance from us. Anything they wanted they were given at the plant level," he said.
In the early portion of the recall, he said, it might have taken some time to retrieve requested information, but those were logistical issues involving cross-referencing data codes and customer codes to translate them for the CFIA.
"There certainly instances where it took us a day to get the information, but Istress there was never any time that we were holding or hiding any information."
Nilsson confirmed the plant’s decision to recall the primal cuts was unusual, but it seemed the most expedient way to solve what was turning out to be a red-tape issue between trading partners.
"Because the U.S. and the CFIA had different stances and worked under marginally different regulations, it got tied up almost in a bureaucracy, and for us the safest way out was to do this far-reaching recall."
Nilsson said the company is concerned for anyone who became ill, for the public, and for all the company’s workers.
"I would like to publicly thank all of our team members at head office and at the plant, and everyone involved. It has been a trying time and all that we have done from the very start is try to co-operate and do whatever we can to fix it."
Nilsson said he understands the disruption has caused the cattle industry, since the XL plant is one of the two largest in the country.
"I know it’s caused a great amount of turmoil in the beef community. I’d just like to say hang on because all things will pass, but at this point there seems to be an uncertainty as to which direction CFIA is going with regard to E. coli at my plant, or any other plant in the country," Nilsson said.
— Sheri Monk is a reporter for Alberta Farmer Express at Pincher Creek, Alta.
Beef processing resumes at XL plant under lockdown, Oct. 11, 2012
Ranchers wait out beef recall, exports to U.S. grow, Oct. 11, 2012
XL found lacking in E. coli documentation, beard nets, Oct. 9, 2012