JBS predicts better days for Brooks plant and Canadian beef sector

photo: Istock

Company officials give media and community members a tour of Brooks facility, and say safety is Job 1

iStock_cattle_feedlot.jpgThe company that bills itself as the world’s biggest animal protein supplier sees a bright future for Canada’s beef industry.

“We’re planning for long-term success at this plant,” Bill Rupp, president of the JBS USA beef unit, said during a recent tour of its newly acquired Brooks plant.

“We’ve a lot of dreams for Canada. We’d like to put out more value-added product from this facility, or one of our sister facilities. JBS is in business here for the long term and here to grow.”

Labour costs, as well as removal and disposal of specified risk material, put Canadian production costs about 15 per cent higher than those in the U.S., but 65 per cent of the Brooks plant’s product is sold in Canada. Most of the rest goes to the U.S. and a relatively small quantity is exported overseas.

“That’s an area where we see growth potential,” says Rupp. “The world is becoming more and more confident in Canadian beef — in all North American beef. We seem to be over the hump now and things are getting better and better all the time.”

The plant, which employs 2,300, presently kills about 2,000 head per day, and the goal is to increase that to 4,000 a day with two shifts (with a third shift for sanitizing).

On the tour, JBS Food Canada president Willie Van Solkema repeatedly said the Brooks facility was “a good plant” with a good food safety team. Mistakes were made, he said, but he suggested seriousness of the E. coli incident was overblown and politicized. However, since taking over the plant, the amount of meat discarded because of quality issues has dropped by 25 per cent even though JBS standards exceed those of the CFIA. All of XL Foods’ former customers are again buying from the plant, Van Solkema said.

JBS officials said one of the company’s strengths is the sharing of best practices, including food safety ones, throughout the company. JBS also continually adjusts line speeds based on the number of workers on the processing line.

“You don’t do yourself any favours by overstraining employees,” said Van Solkema, adding the company has reduced minor, major and repetitive strain injuries by 30 to 40 per cent. Plant manager, Jack Wolf and Van Solkema do regular plant walkthroughs, looking for unsafe work practices.

No. 1: E. coli. No. 2: bruising

Asked what producers could do to improve the quality of their cattle, Van Solkema put preventing E. coli 0157 from ever entering the plant at the top of his wish list, but recognized nobody knows how to do that yet. His second wish was to prevent bruising as bruised meat has to be discarded. Whenever JBS company staff have had an issue with bruising and gone through every step the cattle make, he said, they’ve almost always found a square spot in a pen or some other flaw in the handling system that caused the animals to balk.

Van Solkema, whose long career in the beef industry includes managing Cargill’s High River plant and president of sales and plant operations at XL Foods, said JBS is “100 per cent committed to the Canadian beef industry.” JBS’s size and reach gives it the ability to sell at optimum prices and get maximum value, he said.

“Our product is as good if not better than (our sister plants in the U.S.), so we should get a premium and share that value with producers,” he said. “Otherwise, we won’t have a Canadian industry. Brands bring consumer loyalty and premiums we can share with producers.”

The company plans to introduce its Chef’s Exclusive, Aspen Ridge natural beef, and Angus brand in Canada.

Van Solkema also pledged that the company will be “open and transparent.” When Liberal MLA David Swann asked for actual injury numbers, he promised to get them for him. Molly Douglass, reeve of the County of Newell, has toured the plant several times, both as a community leader and as a rancher delivering cattle. She said she was pleasantly surprised when one of the first actions of the incoming JBS management team was to introduce themselves to her and the council.

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