EDMONTON - As questions remain about when or if the packing plant at the centre of an E. coli outbreak and beef recall will reopen, another meat company in southern Alberta has ramped up production using workers from the same union.
The Cargill plant in High River added a Saturday shift and has been operating six days a week since XL Foods in Brooks had its licence suspended by food safety inspectors.
Cargill says it is operating full out, handling up to 4,500 cattle daily.
Brigitte Burgoyne, a spokeswoman for the international agri-business giant, said Cargill follows and strives to exceed Canadian Food Inspection Agency standards for cleanliness.
"We work with the CFIA to ensure that we are adhering to their expected processes," she said Monday from Winnipeg.
"Food safety — operating in a clean and safe environment — is our No. 1 concern."
Alberta Agriculture Minister Verlyn Olson was to tour the Cargill plant Monday afternoon to view its food safety measures. It is the largest beef processing facility in Canada.
Peter Frost of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1118 at the High River plant said the union has a good relationship with Cargill managers.
Frost said the company listens when any of the 2,000 union members who work there have ideas or point out concerns.
"This employer ... when we bring forward food safety issues, they are more than willing to listen and respond in a very timely fashion," Frost said from High River.
Last week, members of the same union who work at the XL Foods plant held a new conference to tell a different story about the company they work for.
Doug O'Halloran, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, said the processing line at the plant operates too quickly for workers to keep it clean.
He said the plant uses too many temporary foreign workers and won't work with the union to ensure they are properly trained. The union also said the company won't agree to whistleblower protection for workers who point out problems.
XL Foods officials did not return calls Monday. Last week, XL Foods CEO Brian Nilsson said his company has an open-door policy for its workers and has always welcomed their input on plant operations.
About 800 workers at the Brooks plant were getting ready to return to work Tuesday, only days after XL Foods announced a temporary layoff of 2,000.
The workers are to finish cutting beef carcasses as part of a Canadian Food Inspection Agency evaluation on whether the plant is safe to process cattle and send meat to market.
O'Halloran said it isn't clear if the workers will be on the job for one day or longer. The hope is the plant will be allowed to begin processing cattle again later this week.
"The uncertainty is playing on everyone's nerves," he said Monday.
"We are optimistic that they will be able to start slaughtering on Wednesday or Thursday. If that doesn't happen, we must have a bigger problem than what XL has been letting on."
The company blamed the layoff decision on the federal government, which hadn't given XL a firm date for when it would get its licence back to fully resume operations.
The Canadian Cattlemen's Association said Monday it still trying to understand what happened on the weekend when XL Foods announced the layoffs and then recalled some of the workers a day later.
Some producers have been sending their cattle to Cargill, but the High River plant isn't big enough to take them all.
Others are sending live cattle to U.S. plants for slaughter, but the added transportation costs reduce already slim profit margins.
Producers also face a shortage of cattle-hauling trucks.
"We have had a lot of uncertainty as to where are we going to be able to send our cattle to have them processed, and I don't think the events over the last few days have really added any clarity to that," said John Masswohl, a cattlemen's association spokesman from Ottawa.
"We are still very uncertain about what the long-term future of this facility (XL Foods Brooks plant) is going to be."
In Ottawa, the Opposition called again for Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz to resign over the government's handling of the recall and inspections.
"One day, the workers are sent home and inspections stopped, and the next day, they're called back to the plant. It's chaos," NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said during question period.
"The minister of agriculture and agrifoods has clearly lost control. How is it that the minister ... is still in his job?"
Ritz appears to have shifted his approach to the situation since he held a news conference in Calgary two weeks ago and toured the XL plant in Brooks. At that time, he said he was intervening personally to ensure the CFIA was aware of how seriously the government was taking the issue.
Now Ritz has taken a step back, issuing statements from time to time and allowing bureaucrats from the CFIA and the Public Health Agency of Canada to do most of the talking.
A government source said it was the CFIA that dealt directly with XL Foods over the weekend, standing firm when the company effectively shut down inspections by laying off 2,000 workers.
"Regardless of what happens in the plant, CFIA officials are on the ground there, doing their work, doing their due diligence to make sure that any food produced out of there will be safe," Ritz said.
"We will continue to do that. These are science-based decisions, not political choices."
The plant has been closed since Sept. 27 because of E. coli concerns and has been shut out of the key U.S. market since Sept. 13.
The Public Health Agency of Canada says 15 people have become ill in four provinces from a strain of E. coli linked to beef from the meat packer.
Before XL Foods bought the plant in 2009, it faced at least four E. coli food inspection recalls under different owners.
In 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture temporarily delisted the plant from being able to export meat because of what it called "general sanitary concerns."
The XL Foods plant is the second-largest beef packer in the country and slaughters and processes more than one-third of Canada's beef.
— With files from Jennifer Ditchburn in Ottawa and Medicine Hat News