Problems at the southern Alberta beef plant had obviously been brewing for a while.
By the time the lid blew off what was going on inside XL Foods’ Lakeside Packers meat plant, beef markets around the world felt the repercussions. Fear spread throughout Canada as 18 cases of E. coli – including the poisoning of a four-year-old Alberta girl who suffered kidney failure after digesting tainted meat – were linked to the processing floor at the beleaguered plant.
Working conditions, safety standards and greed were all cited as root causes for what became the biggest beef recall in Canadian history. Since then, millions of kilograms of meat have been discarded in dumps and more than 1,500 beef products have been recalled from across Canada, the U.S. and as far away as Hong Kong.
The resulting investigation by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency found faults that weren’t coincidental or accidental but, to a great degree, systemic. Accusations also surfaced that a lot of what was wrong at the plant may have actually been dictated, or forced through cuts or re-allotment of resources, by government officials.
STORY CONTINUES AFTER GALLERY..
Cows are slaughtered at XL Foods Inc. plant in Brooks, Alta. Beef slaughtered that day will later be recalled.
August 24, 27, 28 & 29
Beef processed at the Brooks facility on these days is later recalled.
Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is alerted by U.S. officials that beef from the Brooks plant has tested positive for E. coli bacteria. An investigation begins.
Four consumers who bought Kirkland Signature brand strip loin grilling steaks from Edmonton Costco at 13650 50th St. N.E. later become ill.
A Calgary girl, 4, is hospitalized for symptoms caused by E. coli bacteria.
September 11 & 12
Four in Edmonton who ate Kirkland strip loin steak seek medical for symptoms of E. coli poisoning. Two went to hospital but all four are recovering.
The CFIA issues their first warning, telling people not to eat, sell or serve 26 ground beef/ground-beef products sold at several major stores because they “may be contaminated with E. coli.” Although XL Foods Inc. voluntarily issued the recall, no reported illnesses have been linked to this recall.
55 more ground beef and ground-beef products are added to the list of products recalled across Canada. All were manufactured at the XL plant in Brooks, Alta.
Fourteen more products are added to the recall list.
XL Foods releases a statement saying XL Foods prides itself on providing safe and high quality beef products. Meanwhile, the recall list by the CFIA grows to add 75 more items.
The United States Food Safety and Inspection Service issues a public-health alert, while the CFIA adds another 37 products to the recall.
Another 47 products are added to the recall.
Another 10 products are added to the recall.
An in-depth review uncovers “several deficiencies” during an investigation into the Brooks facility.
- 60 products to the Canadian recall. - U.S. recalls products in California, Oregon, Michigan, Nebraska, Utah, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. - Alberta Health Services (AHS) investigate a total of eight E. coli cases - four in Edmonton, three in Calgary and one in central Alberta. The tests confirm Edmonton patients were infected by E. coli-tainted steaks bought at Costco. The CFIA is notified about the test results.
- The CFIA recalls Kirkland steaks packaged and sold September 4-7 from the Edmonton Costco. - It is confirmed the steaks were processed by XL Foods Inc. in Brooks. - Costco stores are asked by top doctors to stop using a meat-tenderizing machine that could potentially move E. coli bacteria from the surface of the meat to the centre. - Ten states are now affected by the The United States Food Safety and Inspection Service recall.
AHS investigates a fourth case of E. coli in Calgary. AHS is investigating what caused E. coli poisoning in the Calgary patient and the central Alberta patient.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency suspends the operating licence of XL Foods' Brooks plant.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency suspends the operating licence of XL Foods' Brooks plant
There was no initial reason to order a public recall or shut down the XL Foods facility in Brooks, say officials from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, defending their delay in alerting the public.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency comes under fire. Alberta Premier Alison Redford and NDP MP Linda Duncan question the delay in alert.
The Canadian Cattlemen's Association says it's possible federal regulators will clear the XL Foods beef plant to resume operations by next week but the real challenge will be getting U.S. to accept beef exports from the plant again.
The beef recall expanded to Co-Op, Metro and Walmart stores in Canada.
The beef recall gets expanded to include dozens of cuts of meat.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford says Alberta beef is safe and that the province breeds a high quality product with the highest standards possible.
The Liberals and the NDP gang up on the Conservative government over the safety of Canada's meat supply.
Beef recall is expanded again. This time to include dozens of additional products including roasts and sausages.
The XL Foods beef recall gets expanded to B.C. More than 20 B.C. retail chains pull beef products from their shelves as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency continues to expand the recall from the plant.
The XL foods beef recall becomes the biggest beef recall in Canadian history.
XL Foods finally breaks silence, issuing a press release in which they took responsibility for the circumstances that led to the recalls. Not much was made available in terms of explanation or courses of action. Meanwhile, the recall is expanded yet again.
Workers at the XL plant in Brooks speak out and what they have to say is not pretty. They describe high output demands, low staffing levels of disgusting hygiene issues. Meanwhile, the CFIA says the plant failed to maintain or update it's E. coli plan.
Five new E. coli cases are linked to the tainted meat. Recall expands again.
The beef recall, the largest in Canadian history, got much bigger with meats being pulled off shelves in Hong Kong.
Federal inspectors begin a detailed assessment of the Brooks XL Foods Plant. The investigation would last weeks.
This little baby starts making its rounds... Meanwhile, the union at the plant said it was a case of greed over health that led to the massive recall and claim the plant is nowhere near safe.
A partial reopening of the plant is considered and Alberta Premier Alison Redford rejects calls for a provincial inquiry into the recall.
The U.S. announces it will audit the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, as Quebec E. coli cases are linked to the Alberta plant and new E. coli cases are confirmed in B.C.
2,000 workers at the XL Foods plant in Brooks are temporarily laid off.
800 of the 2,000 workers temporarily laid off the day before are recalled so that CFIA can continue its investigation in the plant.
JBS USA announce they're taking over the management of the plant and reserve the option to purchase XL Foods. Earlier that day, workers at the plant were laid off again, as the recall of beef products expands yet again.
Also on the 17th, B.C. residents announce their intent to sue XL Foods over E. coli-tainted meat, as Brooks declares itself in a state of crisis due to the thousands of workers, many of them of foreign origin and of modest means, are left without income and in need of services.
JBS USA announces it intends to work with the union and the community to fix the conditions in the plant that led to the massive beef recalls.
The CFIA announces that some of the meat stored in warehouses after the recalls may end up on your dinner table once the recalls end. Meanwhile, remaining carcasses at the plant test negative for E. coli.
Tons of meant from the XL Foods plant is tossed into Alberta landfills.
Former XL Foods manager says CFIA inspectors require better training. Later that afternoon, it is announced that all workers would return to the plant on Oct. 29 for further training and to partially reopen the beleaguered plant.
JBS CEO Bill Rupp addressed the Brooks plant, the community and the media and vowed that safety at the plant would be the number one priority, adding the culture at the plant would change for the better.
Production at the XL Foods plant in Brooks resumes for the first time since E. Coli tainted meat from the plant resulted in the largest Canadian beef recall in history.
R-CALF, a U.S. ranchers lobby group, asks U.S. courts to block the possible sale of the Brools XL Foods plant to JBS USA, which is at the time managing the plant but which has reserved the option to buy the Alberta facility, as well as some U.S. plants. (Getty)
Another case of E. coli is linked to the XL Foods Inc. plant in Alberta. The Public Health Agency of Canada says the case was in Quebec, bringing the total number of confirmed cases across the country to 17.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency discloses that its staff observed a number of problems at XL Foods the previous week, as the plant worked to get back to normal operations. They included meat areas that weren't adequately cleaned and water sanitizer that wasn't maintained at a high enough temperature.
The total number of e-coli cases across the country linked to the XL Foods Brooks plant climbs to 18. The Public Health Agency of Canada said the new case is in Alberta.
For three months, accusations were leveled against the plant’s management, owners group, staff, the CFIA, the provincial government and the feds. The crisis was personal for those affected by the bacteria but it rapidly also took on a political and economic tone, as the tainted meat scandal hurt production and international confidence in Alberta’s largest agriculture sector.
Alberta is the single largest beef producing and processing area in Canada. According to Stats Canada numbers, there were more bovine than people in the province in 2011, with nearly five million heads of cattle, compared to the approximately 3.5 million people calling Alberta home. The plant itself is responsible for approximately one third of the country’s entire slaughtering capacity.
The crisis struck at the heart of the industry’s $13 billion annual contribution to the Alberta economy.
As a result of the crisis, the plant was shut down for almost two months, Canada’s biggest economic partner, the U.S., shut its door to products from the plant and international consumer of Alberta beef, such as Hong Kong, followed suit. The contamination resulted in wide-spread fear of Alberta beef, in loss of income and tax revenue, and it threw the City of Brooks into a state of economic and social crisis.
But beyond the health and economic impact generated by XL Foods’ practices at the plant, it was also the way the company handled the situation that kept pushing the meat packers front and centre in the news. The company remained mum during the entire ingestation of the crisis and when it finally broke silence, it shed little light on the situation.
But it wasn‘t just XL Foods that drew criticism as the crisis grew in scope and in severity. The provincial and federal governments – including the CFIA themselves – were criticized for either setting the stage for the health and economic disaster or for not doing enough when the full magnitude of the problems at the plant came to light.
The E. coli bacteria that would lead to the months-long saga was first spotted on Sept. 4, but no alarm was sounded until two weeks later when the CFIA put out a wide recall encompassing several brands of ground beef on September 17.
Within the week, the recall list had been expanded so aggressively and encompassed so many brands that officials told consumers that if they had any doubt about the safety of their beef to throw it out.
Almost three weeks after E. coli was first confirmed at the plant, the CFIA suspended the plant’s operating license. By then, the recall contained more than 1,000 items and had expanded to nearly three dozen states.
But criticism over the crisis started to fester when the public heard the U.S. had already banned meat from the plant from entering the country back in Sept. 13 but no action had been taken to protect consumers north of the border until four days later. Later, critics demanded to know why it took more than three weeks for the government to shut down the plant, as recalls continued to expand at a frantic pace and more E. coli incidents were reported and alleged to be connected to tainted meat from the XL Foods plant.
Both the feds and XL Foods said they didn’t raise the alarm earlier because they didn’t see the need for it.
The Alison Redford Tory government was stung by the affair as it dismissed calls for a provincial inquiry into the plant and its operations. The province refused to step in and help mitigate the crisis but did call for the CFIA to be held responsible for the delay.
Meanwhile, the leader of the provincial opposition and the Wildrose Party, Danielle Smith, was also criticized for being absent for most of the crisis.
The House of Commons lit up with attacks as the Liberals and NDP grilled the government about why it took so long for the warnings to be issued and attacked them for allowing another food crisis to besiege Canadian consumers.
If things looked grim politically and economically at the provincial and national levels, it was a lot worse at the municipal level. With 2,500 employees, Lakeside Packers is by far the biggest employer in the small, southern Alberta city of Brooks.
When the plant was shut down for investigations and waited for a clean slate from the CFIA, a large chunk of the city’s workforce was thrown into limbo, with no pay and uncertainty of if and when they would ever return to work. Conditions were made worse by the fact many of those employees are temporary foreign workers.
Even political commentator Rick Mercer weighed in the crisis, throwing some pointed jabs at the ‘Secret Society,’ that is XL Foods and at the food inspection system put in place by the feds.
Questions were raised again regarding the scale of the problem when as much as 1.3 million pounds of suspect beef was trucked out to area dumps and discarded like trash.
The meat dump caused for the leader of the opposition a crisis of her own, when she agreed with a tweet that suggested that rather than throwing out the meat, the beef should've been used to feed the poor and homeless?
I agree. We all know thorough cooking kills E. coli. What a waste. MT @lyechtel: Is there no way to cook it so its safe and feed the hungry?— Danielle Smith (@ElectDanielle) October 21, 2012
It was one of Smith’s first attempts to weigh in on the issue. But she soon found herself backpedaling, after critics condemned her for agreeing that food that wasn’t cleared for market should be fed to the less fortunate, in what became known as the ‘Tainted Tweet affair.’
The plant has now re-opened, is back in operation and exporting to the U.S. has resumed.
The E. coli crisis claimed personal victims but also cost XL Foods directly, not only was their reputation tarnished – employees, the union and even former supervisors at the plant charged that profit and increased production outweighed food safety at the plant – but is now at the receiving end of a class action lawsuit by those who contracted the bacteria by eating tainted food from the plant.
XL Foods is facing legal actions from claimants on the Alberta side and B.C. side of the border.
But the biggest loss for the company comes in the form of JBS USA, which has moved in to take over management of the plant and has kept in its pocket to the option to buy XL Foods outright.
The U.S.-based, Brazilian-owned company has come down hard on its predecessor and promises organic changes in the way the plant will be run, claiming the number one priority for the new management is food safety. JBS USA CEO Bill Rupp said he aims to restore Canadians' confidence on the plant.
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