XL Foods union calls for inquiry as E. coli cases hit 12

Union holds news conference to discuss safety protocols, meat production expectations

The union representing workers at XL Foods Inc. is calling for a public inquiry into the massive beef recallat the company's meat-packing plant in Brooks, Alta.

Doug O'Halloran, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, said the federal government is to blame for cutting back on much-needed funding.

"We don't think the government can do the inquiry, we think they are part of the problem," he said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

O'Halloran said Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors are doing a good job, but added there needs to be more of them.

He also voiced concerns that CFIA inspectors don't have the authority to shut down a line if they think there is a safety concern.

O'Halloran said employees have been getting paid since the closure of the plant, and urged employee involvement going forward.

“It’s tragic that we had to have this situation, but I think in the long run we’re going to have an industry that’s better, that’s greater," O’Halloran said.

"We want to work with XL, we want them to be part of the solution, but they’ve got to listen to the workers.”

Employees speak out

XL Foods employee Wilfred Garcia says workers feel pressure to keep production lines moving — sometimes at the expense of food safety practices.

"There's not enough employees for the 4,000 pieces they process every day...and that's why there's this problem too," Garcia said.

XL 'saddened' by union claims

XL Foods released a statement late Wednesday afternoon in response to the union. The company said management has always been open to discuss plant operations with workers.

“I am saddened that the UFCW has chosen to attack the workmanship of its many members. We have extensive training programs for new workers and hold our workers in the highest regard for their abilities,” said co-CEO Brian Nilsson in the release.

The statement also noted that the line speed at XL Foods is within regulatory requirements.

Quebec E. coli illness confirmed

O’Halloran's comments came just before a 12th case of E. coli was confirmed. A Quebec investigation linked an illness in the province two weeks ago to E. coli O157, the strain at the centre of the XL Foods investigation. The affected individual has since recovered.

That brings the total of E. coli cases to 12 — seven cases in Alberta, one in Newfoundland, one in B.C. and three in Quebec — according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

'Culture change needed'

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said Wednesday there needs to be a change to the employer's approach to food safety.

"There is a culture in that plant that puts priority on quantity over quality and until that changes we’re going to continue to struggle," said McGowan.

Keith Warriner, director of the University of Guelph’s food safety and quality assurance program, said there has been a lot of finger-pointing over food safety at the plant.

“In a lot of ways, it’s passing the buck,” said Warriner.

“Workers passing the buck to the management, management passing the buck to the CFIA.”

Warriner also said it was “obvious” to him the CFIA is complacent in stepping back.

XL Foods silence 'damaging'

Alberta's Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith said XL Foods’ silence over the E. coli problems at the Brooks, Alta., plant has been damaging. “I think that the principal responsibility now for communicating with the public comes down to the company,” said Smith.

“I'd like to see XL Foods, someone, stand up in a press conference with the regulators at their side and talk about what they're doing to restore confidence to make people aware that they've taken this seriously, they apologize for it.”

Smith also said federal and provincial officials may not have done everything possible to deal with the situation.

Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason said repeated comments from federal officials that the system works well were ridiculous.

“They're not interested in getting to the facts and finding out what went wrong and being honest and straightforward and transparent with the public about something as important as the safety of the food that they eat and serve their children," said Mason.

"We need to have an inquiry and find out what in fact went wrong.”

The Lakeside Packers plant shut down Sept. 26 after the CFIA linked the facility to several beef products tainted with E. coli. More than 1,800 products have been recalled.

CFIA expanded its beef recall again Wednesday night to include some beef jerky sold in New Brunswick and corned beef sold in Quebec. Product details can be found on the CFIA's website.

Agency officials said they will check safety controls and determine if XL Foods has fixed the problems that were uncovered by federal inspectors.

On Tuesday, XL Foods said it had addressed all the safety issues and concerns raised by the CFIA.

"The company has completed implementing corrective action requests issued by the CFIA following the findings of their investigation," XL Foods said in a statement.

CBC News, Oct 10 2012

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