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..
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.