Morale good as 2,000 XL Foods employees go back to work

Independent auditor to begin food safety review

Amanda Stephenson – Calgary Herald

Oct. 29, 2012

CALGARY — More than 2,000 workers are back on the job Monday in Brooks, as the city’s biggest employer, the XL Foods meat-packing plant, resumes operations.

“Morale is good,” said Doug O’Halloran, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401. “Of course, they (the workers) are disappointed about the money they’ve lost. . . . But at least there’s light at the end of the tunnel. They’re eager to get back.”

The workers, who were laid off Oct. 13 — more than two weeks after the XL plant was shuttered by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency — spent part of last week in training sessions organized by the plant’s new management, JBS-USA.

The company has stated it will introduce the same food safety system at the Brooks plant that it employs at all its U.S. processing facilities. Part of that will involve offering ongoing training to workers year-round, instead of just at the time of hiring.

O’Halloran said workers are pleased, believing additional food safety precautions not only protect the public, but also protect them from the kind of job disruptions they have seen this month.

“They’re hoping it will be a much better place to work. Morale-wise, and in terms of worker safety and food safety,” O’Halloran said.

The XL Foods plant, the centre of an E. coli scare that has resulted in the largest beef recall in Canadian history, had its licence reinstated by the CFIA last week.

JBS, which has not only taken over management of the plant but also has the exclusive option to purchase it from embattled current owners, Nilsson Bros. Inc., has stated its priority is to get the plant up and running, get everyone back to work, and start producing safe product.

JBS has commissioned an independent auditor, who is expected to be on site Monday, to begin a complete food safety review of the XL plant. Inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture are also expected to visit the facility this week. They will need to sign off before the plant can resume exporting meat.

The plant will begin production in a limited capacity at first, and JBS has given no indication when it may begin full-scale operations.

Brooks Mayor Martin Shields said he hopes his community — which has suffered economically as a result of one-in-six residents being out of work — is nearing the end of its ordeal.

“Everyone’s got their fingers crossed behind their back,” Shields said.

But since many of the workers will have missed a month’s worth of paycheques before payday finally rolls around two weeks from now, it will be a while until life in Brooks gets back to normal.

“The food bank is still one of the critical spots,” Shields said, adding most local service agencies still expect to see heightened demand for several more weeks.

News that the plant is close to resuming operations is also a relief for Alberta’s cattle industry. The 43,000-square-foot facility at Brooks processes about one-third of Canada’s beef production.

© The Calgary Herald