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lakeside slaughterhouse

Cattle in pasture beside XL Foods' Lakeside Packers plant at Brooks, Alta., on Monday.LARRY MacDOUGAL/The Canadian Press

You have 35 seconds: Gut the cow without damaging its organs, and be sure not to drop the stomach on the floor. Do not cut yourself with the swift-moving blade; do not touch the scalding sanitary surfaces. Then, walk in hot water to clean your white rubber boots. Swap your knife out and start over again. Again and again.

This is life on the production line at the Lakeside slaughterhouse in Brooks, Alta., one of the three largest such facilities in Canada that, together, dominate the market. Owned by XL Foods, Lakeside slaughters 4,000 cows on a full day, cutting them into about two million pounds of beef. That's the equivalent of 3,000 steaks a minute. Plants like this are the reality of modern mass food production, and federal inspectors set up shop right on the production line. It's safer, some say, than mom-and-pop abattoirs scattered across the country.

But the speed and scale are also why a problem can so quickly become a crisis. It's why an E. coli outbreak on Aug. 23 at Lakeside triggered Canada's largest beef recall, one stretching to each province and territory. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency believes XL Foods didn't follow its own procedures, which the company has acknowledged were "not enough" anyhow, taking " full responsibility" for the fallout. It has declined all interviews and announced a series of changes. But some say the problem isn't just with the plant. It's with the industry.

"I don't want to be too hard on Lakeside," says Tom Hesse, a spokesman for the union representing the plant's workers. "This is characteristic, I would say, of a lot of food-processing plants in an era of mass food production."

And as the high dollar eats away the Canadian beef sector's advantage in U.S. markets, automation at these megaplants has become a necessity, one that governments are supporting. Records show the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency, a provincial entity, has given $2.238-million in grants to XL Foods for seven projects since 2009. The biggest, at up to $897,449, was to "improve productivity, increase product quality, increase volumes and provide for a safer work environment."

It means things are speeding up at Lakeside, which was sold in 2008 for $107-million. The union says the previous owner aimed for 3,400 cows a day and that workers have complained about the increased pace.

Abdallah Djar started at the Lakeside plant in 2004 and remembers it processing about 2,500 cows a day. Mr. Djar quit in 2006 after opening a local African supermarket and his customers nearly all work at the plant. They've been telling him how things have changed. "Yes, a long time [they've been] complaining," he says. "It's too fast."

Experts are split on the situation. Big plants are easier to monitor and the onus is on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to keep them in line. "With perishable foods, high through-put in processing is important for food quality and for food preservation. It's less likely to have meat hanging around in a high volume plant," McMaster University biologist Herb Schellhorn says. "The downside, of course, is that when incidents like this happen they affect a lot of people."

Doug Powell, however, says it's XL that should be in the spotlight, not the CFIA. The Canadian-born Kansas State University professor of food safety co-authored a study this year titled "Audits And Inspections Are Never Enough," and says food safety is up to plants. "It's not a function whether it's big or small, whether it's local or global. It's that you know about micro-organisms and take steps to reduce them, or you don't."

One of the changes XL has announced is better training, but that's not simple. Many of the staff are recent immigrants or temporary foreign workers – whoever is willing to take the job, particularly in booming Alberta. Think life on the kill floor sounds tough? Try it without being able to speak English well, or at all, and with your bid for Canadian residency hanging in the balance. The workers have no whistle-blower protection. They won't rock the boat if there's a problem.

"If you don't have a job [because] you shoot your mouth off, you don't get your residency," says Mr. Hesse, the union spokesman, of the temporary foreign workers. "In a place like this, you need a culture that shows an incredible amount of deference to food safety," he says. XL insists the "safety and well being of our consumers is our No. 1 priority," but Prof. Powell's view is different: "I see absolutely no evidence of any food-safety culture at XL."

Meanwhile, questioning the beef sector is tantamout to treason in Alberta. Premier Alison Redford has unequivocally backed the sector, saying last weekend that beef was "safe" despite some "regulatory challenges." Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason called it the "most foolish and irresponsible comment on food safety since 'shoot, shovel and shut up,'" referring to former premier Ralph Klein's infamous message to farmers during the mad-cow crisis.

"It's time that the government stopped playing PR for the beef industry," Mr. Mason says.

As XL continues to work toward reopening, its staff are caught in the middle and stretched thin. "The worst-case scenario would be to shut down for two weeks, three weeks. People just couldn't pay their bills," says Carl Hillier, 65, a former Newfoundland fisherman who has worked there since 2001. But Prof. Powell worries the plant will reopen, and production will continue to increase, with the same attitude authorities have taken for a century – trust us, it's safe – and no data to back it up.

"I've been doing this stuff for 20 years, and I'm getting sort of bored about reading the same thing over and over. They don't learn," he says. "They all say the same thing about how food safety is the No. 1 priority. But, against economics, it doesn't stand a chance."

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