Pace of beef plant puts health at risk: Union
BROOKS — The union for workers at an Alberta meat packer shut down over E. coli concerns says the pace of slaughter operations forces workers to take shortcuts around cleanliness and puts the health of beef-eating Canadians at risk.
Doug O’Halloran, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, says the processing line at the XL Foods Lakeside plant in Brooks moves too quickly and he wants to see a public inquiry into the problems that led to the plant’s shutdown.
O’Halloran told a news conference Wednesday that between 300 and 320 carcasses go by workers every hour and employees make between 3,000 and 4,000 cuts a shift. That has resulted in less time in which to make sure knives are sanitized after each cut.
“It’s just not enough time,” O’Halloran said. “We are calling on Lakeside to take it seriously. You can replace all the aluminum, all the stainless steel you want at the plant, but if you don’t give your workers the tools to perform the job properly, we’re not going to solve this problem.”
O’Halloran cited other examples of poor cleanliness.
He said cattle are supposed to be washed before they enter to ensure their fur is free of manure. But sometimes the water is not hot enough to get all the excrement off.
He also said sewage has backed up on the killing floor at times and forced workers to traipse through the waste and track it through the plant.
O’Halloran said the plant’s increasing reliance on temporary foreign workers is also a problem. The company has not worked with the union to ensure the workers are properly trained and know what their rights are, he added.
The union boss said whistleblower protection is needed for the workers who are afraid to speak out about problems for fear of reprisal.
“Lakeside you’ve got one chance to get this correct. We understand you’re spending lots of money, but you’re still not listening to the people who are the most important in your food safety — the workers who are doing the job.
“They are going to get you through this day and it’s time you woke up and listened to them.”
No one from XL Foods was available for comment. The company has limited its communication to news releases since an expansive recall began.
Earlier this week, co-CEO Brian Nilsson issued a statement saying the company had fixed the problems that forced food safety officials to shut down the plant. He expressed regret over “the illnesses caused by the consumption of beef products.”
Inspectors with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency were at the plant on Tuesday for what was termed a pre-inspection. A report from that visit was being reviewed Wednesday.
Agency spokeswoman Lisa Gauthier said the pre-inspection is just one step in a multi-step process to determine if the plant is safe to resume operating.
O’Halloran said the food agency and the federal government share some of the responsibility for what has happened.
He said while the 46 agency staff the federal government says are positioned at the plant do a good job, they are overworked and don’t have the authority they need to shutter operations when things go wrong.
“Somebody better wake up and put some teeth in the CFIA because they don’t have any teeth now.”
Gil McGowan with the Alberta Federation of Labour and Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason said the province has a roll to play in pushing for more oversight.
“Our provincial government has to do more than act as cheerleaders for the industry,” McGowan said
“This has damaged the brand of Alberta beef in a way that has been very, very serious,” added Mason.
So date, 11 people in four provinces have been infected by a strain of E. coli that has been linked to the plant. The bacteria in XL beef was first discovered in tests done by U.S. officials at the border Sept. 3.
The U.S. stopped accepting shipments of beef from the company Sept. 13. A recall of ground beef was eventually issued Sept. 16 and has been expanded numerous time.
The CFIA revoked the plant’s operating licence Sept. 27.
More than 1,800 XL Foods products have been recalled across Canada, along with more than 1.1 million kilograms of beef exported to the U.S. and 20 other countries.
The XL plant with its 2,200 workers is the largest employer in Brooks. O’Halloran did commend the company for paying workers during the shutdown.
Mayor Martin Shields said there hasn’t been much of a ripple effect in the community since workers are still getting paid.
A lot of the union’s complaints are not new, Shields added.
“People have a short memory because I’ve heard this with the previous owner and the owner before that. To me this is a union lobbying for things that they want,” he said.
“I’m optimistic the plant will be reopened soon.”