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Brazilian-controlled company gearing up to reopen XL meat plant

A Canada Food Inspection Agency employee, left, watches as beef from the XL Foods cattle processing plant is dumped at a landfill site near Brooks, Alta., Oct. 22, 2012. <


The Brazilian-controlled company that has taken over management of an embattled Alberta meat-packing plant at the centre of an E. coli outbreak and Canada's largest-ever beef recall is doing a top-to-bottom review of the slaughterhouse and intensfying workforce training as it gears up to resume production on Monday.

XL Foods' Lakeside plant on the outskirts of Brooks had its operating licence reinstated just two days ago following a safety investigation by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). The plant was shuttered on Sept. 27 after recalled beef products were shipped to more than 20 countries. At least 16 Canadians in four provinces have been sickened by E. coli O157:H7 as a result of eating meat from the southern Alberta slaughterhouse.

Bill Rupp, president of JBS USA, which took over management of the Lakeside plant last week, said the primary focus is getting the facility running again and ensuring XL's 2,200 workers and managers are familiar with the JBS's food-safety practices. XL managers will remain at the plant, for now, working alongside JBS officials.

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"We believe food safety is our responsibility, not the government's responsibility," Mr. Rupp told a media conference at a hotel in Brooks on Thursday, steps away from a training session for XL workers. "Does our process mean we'll never have a positive sample ... of E. coli. No, it doesn't," he added.

"But what it means is that we can get it identified in the plant and we get our arms around it and we can contain the product ... so it doesn't get onto somebody's plate."

Mr. Rupp steered clear of addressing past problems at the Lakeside plant, bought by Edmonton-based XL Foods in 2009. The union representing XL workers has complained about the production line's speed. For the next few weeks, the plant will operate at a slower speed, Mr. Rupp said, but he expects it can ramp up to full capacity, slaughtering as many as 4,000 cattle a day.

JBS USA is a subsidiary of Brazilian food giant JBS S.A., whose largest shareholders are its founding family and the Brazilian government. XL Foods, a privately held company, has given JBS USA the exclusive option to purchase the Lakeside slaughterhouse and other properties for $50-million (U.S.) in cash and $50-million in JBS S.A. shares.

Mr. Rupp said he's excited about acquiring the Alberta meat-packing plant, although a final decision has not been made. XL contacted JBS about taking over Lakeside three weeks ago, after the CFIA suspended its operating licence. If the deal is inked, it would give JBS a significant foothold in Canada. As of Monday, all meat handled at the plant will be shipped under the JBS USA brand.

In deciding to restore XL's licence, the CFIA said it is confident all food-safety problems at Lakeside have been addressed. The food-inspection agency will increase oversight of the plant when it resumes production, boosting inspections and E. coli testing of meat. Two additional federal inspectors have been assigned to the facility, raising the total to 48, split between two shifts.

The plant, however, won't be allowed to run at full speed until the inspection agency believes the facility is ready. Lakeside's ability to export to the U.S. also remains suspended for now.

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The Lakeside plant is a major economic driver in the region and the largest employer, with many of its workers recent immigrants or temporary foreign laborers. The temporary shuttering of Lakeside and subsequent layoffs were a big blow to a city of 13,500 people.

"It's been a roller-coaster month," Brooks Mayor Martin Shields said Thursday. He sees JBS's management takeover as a "silver lining."

Mr. Shields and representatives of the cattle industry sat alongside JBS for the media conference. The Lakeside plant is vitally important to red-meat producers. It along with Cargill's High River facility south of Calgary process more than 80 per cent of Canadian beef. Dave Solverson, vice-president with the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, hopes JBS's extensive international reach will help open up new export opportunities for an industry that is still shaking off the fallout of the mad-cow crisis in 2003.

"This is a real positive move," Mr. Solverson said of the Lakeside management change.

Along with conducting its own review of the plant, JBS USA is bringing in a third-party auditor to assess the facility and food-safety practices. That audit will be led by an expert from Texas A&M University.

Meanwhile, the CFIA has asked its expert advisory committee to examine circumstances surrounding the massive XL beef recall. Through its investigation, the food-inspection agency found that a combination of deficiencies, including inconsistent trend analysis for E. coli, played a role in the food scare.

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But some food-safety experts contend the review should be independent of the CFIA. The expert advisory committee is chaired by CFIA president George Da Pont and includes government and industry representatives as well as academics. The XL's workers union is calling for a public inquiry.

Mr. Rupp said he wants to introduce a new culture at Lakeside, one where workers aren't afraid to speak up about problems. It is a message many XL employees are happy to hear.

"I'm thinking that maybe this changeover would be way beneficial to the employees," said Dale Moorhouse, who has toiled at the Lakeside plant for nearly seven years. Under XL management, "it was more production over anything else," he said.

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