Union says XL Foods ‘cannot self-regulate’ as 12th case of E. coli confirmed
Published Wednesday, October 10, 2012 12:44PM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, October 11, 2012 10:08AM EDT
The union representing workers at Alberta’s XL Foods meat processing plant is calling for a public inquiry into the E. coli outbreak that prompted a North America-wide beef recall as the number of people sickened by the bacterium rose to 12 on Wednesday.
Doug O’Halloran, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, said Alberta Premier Alison Redford should call the inquiry to determine what exactly went wrong at the Brooks, Alta. plant.
More than 1,800 beef products have been recalled and 12 people in four provinces have been sickened with the same strain of E. coli found at the facility.
The Public Health Agency of Canada confirmed another related E. coli case in Quebec Wednesday, bringing the total number of illnesses in that province to three.
There have also been seven confirmed cases in Alberta, one in British Columbia and one in Newfoundland.
O’Halloran accused XL Foods of not listening to the workers’ concerns about food safety at the plant and refusing to meet with the union to discuss longstanding issues.
“XL cannot self-regulate,” he said at a news conference in Brooks on Wednesday.
He said that each worker handles between 3,000 and 4,000 meat cuts per day and around 300 animal carcasses move down the line each hour, leaving employees with little time to perform safety checks.
“You have a few seconds, maybe two seconds…there just isn’t enough time,” he said.
"We are calling on (the plant) 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 said federal food safety inspectors are doing a good job, but there aren’t enough of them and they need to have more powers to shut down production lines when problems arise.
XL Foods also needs to introduce “whistleblower language” so that workers don’t have to fear losing their jobs for speaking out about safety issues, he said.
In response, XL Foods issued a news release saying it has “an open door policy for its workers and has always welcomed their input on plant operations.”
"I am saddened that the UFCW has chosen to attack the workmanship of its many members,” co-CEO Brian Nilsson said in the release. “We have extensive training programs for new workers and hold our workers in the highest regard for their abilities."
Nilsson said XL “runs its line speeds at less than industry average for a plant of this size and within regulatory requirements.”
XL Foods also said this week it has fixed all of the sanitation and food handling problems at the plant that were cited by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
Production was suspended at the plant on Sept. 27 and it’s not clear when it will reopen, although O’Halloran said workers could soon return to work.
Meanwhile, food safety officials are reviewing a report on a pre-inspection of the XL Foods plant, which took place Tuesday.
CFIA spokeswoman Lisa Gauthier says the pre-inspection is just one step in a multi-step process of determining if the plant is safe to resume operating.
She says the CFIA didn't receive the report until late Tuesday night and the agency will carefully review it before commenting.