Staff and union officials attached to the embattled XL Foods meat processing plant in Alberta expressed shock after the company said Saturday it is temporarily laying off almost all of its employees — 2,000 out of approximately 2,200.
"The employees have a fear, they don't understand what is going on," said Abdi Nasir Guir, a worker at the Brooks, Alta. plant which remains at the centre of an international beef recall because of E. coli contamination.
"So many people today were crying because they have car payments, they have mortgages. Even if you ask how long is it going to be closed here they don't tell you, they don't have a date, that's the biggest problem we are having," he added.
The head of the union representing workers at the plant said he was also surprised.
"I thought we were back on track," said Doug O'Halloran, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, citing recent positive remarks from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and XL Foods.
"The CFIA was saying how everything was good and … [one of the owners] was in the paper there saying, 'You know, it's going to be business as usual, we've got everything done,'" he said.
"We were expecting … a few layoffs, but there was no way we anticipated that we'd have everybody laid off."
The CFIA suspended the licence of the Brooks plant on Sept. 27 — three weeks after tests by U.S. and Canadian officials first found E. coli in beef from the facility — after it determined that deficiencies identified earlier in September had not been corrected.
Officials have not said when the plant can reopen.
"CFIA has not provided a definitive timeline for relicensing of the Brooks, Alberta facility," said XL Foods in a statement on Saturday. "It is this uncertainty that has forced the temporary layoffs."
O'Halloran said the layoffs could be the company's way of speeding up the "multi-stage assessment process" currently underway at the plant.
But some employees might have to look for work elsewhere, he added.
"I can only imagine the thoughts that are going through their minds, that they may have to look at moving someplace in order to get another job initially," he said.
O'Halloran said he has been on the phone to his Toronto office to find out who can come and assist the workers with their next steps, like filling out Employment Insurance forms.
The layoffs cast doubt on the plant's immediate future. The CFIA says it will be unable to complete its review of the plant's procedures until work resumes.
"The speed at which XL Foods begins normal operations is solely dependent on their ability to demonstrate that they can produce safe food," the agency said in a statement. "We are ready to continue our assessment as soon as the company resumes activities."
On Thursday, the Brooks plant was allowed to resume limited meat processing under CFIA supervision. The agency said it verified appropriate cleaning and sanitization practices have taken place and that other maintenance problems — such as drainage, condensation and ice buildup on freezer doors — have been addressed.
XL Foods co-CEO Brian Nilsson said the company is committed to the best interests of the cattle industry, their employees, the City of Brooks — which has a population of roughly 13,500 people — and "all affected by the idling of the Brooks facility."
Meanwhile, authorities confirmed three more E. coli cases have been linked to the Brooks plant, one in Quebec and two in B.C., bringing the total number of cases to 15.
According to the CFIA, more than 1,800 beef products have been recalled. CFIA expanded its recall again Friday night to include some beef products sold in Ontario and Quebec. Details can be found on CFIA's website.
Calls for inquiry
Jason Hale, the Wildrose Party MLA for the Stathmore-Brooks riding, is among the politicians calling for an investigation.
“The number one priority for all parties involved, including at CFIA and at XL Foods, needs to be ensuring that all safety recommendations being put forward are conformed to," said Hale. "We continue to ask for a full investigation to find out what went wrong to ensure safety and confidence in our beef industry is not compromised again."
Alberta's NDP leader Brian Mason also pushed again for a provincial inquiry, slamming Premier Alison Redford for rejecting the idea.
"It's important that this provincial government speak up for good, solid inspection in the plant, and in the meat industry in general," he said. "It's the best defense for our beef industry."
But Verlyn Olsen, Alberta's agricultural minister, said there is little the province can do because the matter is between XL Foods and the federal government.
“This is a an extremely important, and negative, development for the community in the short term," Olsen said at a press conference at the legislature in Edmonton Saturday afternoon.
He said the province understands the situation is tough on beef producers and on the Alberta beef brand.
Olsen said Service Canada will have people in Brooks on Monday to help laid-off workers with EI paperwork.