OTTAWA - The meat processing company at the centre of an E. coli outbreak is recalling 800 workers it laid off only a day earlier, breaking an impasse that kept federal inspectors from completing their review of the operation.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency's (CFIA) evaluation of XL Foods ground to a halt this weekend when the firm announced it was temporarily laying off 2,000 workers. Federal inspectors said they had nothing to inspect without the workers handling the beef.
The Brooks, Alta.-based company blamed the layoff decision on the fact the federal government hadn't given it a firm date for when it would get its license back in order to fully resume operations.
But late Sunday afternoon, XL Foods put out a news release saying it was recalling 800 workers to help the CFIA finish its job.
The inspectors are currently halfway through a review of how XL employees process 5,100 beef carcasses. If they're satisfied with what they see, XL could get its license back.
"We look forward to actively working with CFIA to bring this to a viable and timely resolution to allow the plant to recommence operations," Brian Nilsson, co-CEO of XL Foods, said in a release.
That was a different tone than one the company struck just a day earlier, when they urged the CFIA to come to a "swift and viable resolution," apparently without the help of the workers.
Lee Nilsson, fellow co-CEO, had also made a pointed reference to the federal agency in an interview Friday with the Alberta Farmer Express.
"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.
The decision to lay off the workers and effectively shutter the plant caused an immediate backlash. The CFIA said it was completely up to XL Foods as to when the plant would be reopened, and Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz had given no hint of softening on the inspection regime.
On Sunday afternoon, Ritz said he was pleased with XL's decision to continue with the CFIA review.
"Consumer confidence is critical for Canada's beef industry, and that's why we won't compromise when it comes to the safety of Canadians' food," Ritz said in a statement.
"The Canadian Food Inspection Agency's food safety inspectors will continue to work diligently to ensure that all safety issues at the Brooks plant are corrected."
Doug O'Halloran, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union local 401, which represents the employees at the plant, said management has bungled the entire situation.
"Again, it's just chaos, and I guess it begs the question, is there something further wrong with the XL Plant that they're not sharing, because why would you lay these people off who may go get other jobs if you need these workers when the plant fully reopens?" said O'Halloran. "It doesn't make any business sense."
O'Halloran said the workers were completely caught by surprise when XL first announced the layoffs.
"They're just devastated. They're in shock. We were all happy, it was back on track, it looked like the plant would be up and running to some degree the first of the week, and start slaughtering," he said.
"They're left trying to make decisions: 'Do I try to get a job elsewhere? Do I try to wait this out?' The people in Brooks are like a lot of other Canadians who live paycheque to paycheque."
The XL Foods plant is the second-largest meat packer in the country and slaughters and processes more than one-third of Canada's beef. The impact of the plant closure is causing a ripple effect in the cattle industry, where farmers are waiting to sell off their herds.
The plant's license was suspended on Sept. 27 after the CFIA determined that food safety controls at XL Foods were inadequate. The agency has also put out food recall notices for products that originated at XL Foods and were distributed across North America.