Unions call for public inquiry to restore consumer confidence in beef supply chain

BROOKS, Alta. — Alberta's labour movement wants a public inquiry into what went wrong at XL Foods' beef plant in Brooks.

It was closed after E. coli contamination was found in meat processed more than a month ago.

"Confidence in the Alberta beef brand has been shaken, confidence in our industry has been shaken, our customers, especially in our largest market in the United States, wonder if they can trust our product," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

"That has profound long-term implications for the health of this industry and all the jobs it creates," he said at an Oct. 18 news conference in Brooks.

AFI and the United Food and Commercial Workers said food inspection should be transferred from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to Health Canada because it is a public health matter.

The inquiry should also determine if the agency can do its job properly as the federal government further cuts its budget by more than $50 million.

JBS USA has agreed to manage the plant, and the union is confident it can work with the new company.

"We are hopeful JBS will come in here with an open mind and do what is best for the workers and the industry," said local 401 UFCW president Doug O'Halloran, who represents 2,200 employees at the XL plant in Brooks.

"They've got to make a dollar. We know that, but it can't be at the risk of food safety," he said in an interview.

"XL has not done a good job. Nilsson brothers, I believe, didn't know 50 percent of what was going on in that plant or else they couldn't allow these things to happen," he said in reference to company owners Brian and Lee Nilsson.

He claims upper management dismissed concerns from food inspectors, and O'Halloran said those people should be removed once JBS is installed.

Food safety training and upgrades on hazard analysis critical control points was done, but skills need to be upgraded regularly, he added.

"There is never enough training and never enough food safety training in these plants. The priority is production, the priority is getting as many cattle processed as you can, it is not on quality," O'Halloran said.

The CFIA said a change in management or ownership would not influence its decision to reopen the plant.

"This development will not affect our assessment. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency's top priority is consumer safety so this facility's operating licence will not be renewed until we are completely satisfied that this plant can produce safe food," said Paul Mayers, associate vice-president for CFIA programs.

The union expressed doubt about the competency of CFIA inspectors, but Mayers said XL staff should have come forward if they had solid evidence. No one did, he added.

"I would like to assure all Canadians our inspectors are professional and do their job diligently. Our job is food safety," said Mayers.

"We remain open to working with any staff to improve food safety. This is why we have reached out to the union several times," he said.

Officials from JBS USA met with XL staff Oct. 22, and industrial relations staff met with the union Oct. 23.

JBS said it would honour the current labour contract, which expires at the end of 2013.

About 2,200 people received layoff notices last week, but JBS indicated they would all be called back to work.

The Western Producer, Oct 26 2012
Byline; Barbara Duckworth

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