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Inspections at E. coli-affected plant grind to a halt with layoffs

Professor Lynn McMullen, department head of Meat Microbiology in the Agriculture Food and Nutritional Science at the University of Alberta samples a piece of beef strip loin with her grad students on Friday.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

Federal inspectors and the meat processing company at the centre of an E. coli outbreak have come to an impasse, and the Official Opposition says the agriculture minister should be taking action to break it.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency's review of the processing at XL Foods ground to a halt this weekend when the firm announced it was temporarily laying off 2,000 workers.

It blamed the decision on the fact the federal government hadn't given it a firm date for when it would get its license back in order to fully resume operations.

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"XL Foods is committed to the best interests of the cattle industry, our employees, the city of Brooks and all affected by the idling of the Brooks facility," Brian Nilsson, co-CEO of XL, said in the news release.

"We are hopeful that the CFIA will bring this to a swift and viable resolution."

Lee Nilsson, fellow co-CEO, also made a pointed reference to the agency in an interview Friday with the Alberta Farmer Express.

"I know it's caused a great amount of turmoil in the beef community. I'd just like to say hang on because all things will pass, but at this point there seems to be an uncertainty as to which direction CFIA is going with regard to E. coli at my plant, or any other plant in the country," Mr. Nilsson said.

NDP Agriculture critic Malcolm Allen said Sunday that Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz should be stepping in.

"It seems at this stage, with all that's happened, the minister ought to be requesting to talk to the Nilsson brothers, the head of this corporation, and say, 'Okay, what's up? What's happening here?"' Mr. Allen said.

"We've got 2,000 workers who are now unemployed, and we've got ranchers across this country who are saying, 'What's happening to our beef industry? Where are we with this?' I think Minister Ritz has to be a little more proactive than simply saying, it's their decision, nothing I can do."

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The massive layoffs come as food inspectors were halfway through their assessment of XL's processing of 5,100 beef carcasses already stored at the facility in Brooks, Alta.

CFIA spokesman Guy Gravelle said the agency needed to examine all the different ways that the carcasses were handled at every stage of the process, and to ensure that all employees were clear on the proper methods.

But once XL Foods announced the layoffs, that process ended.

"There's nothing for us to review or inspect," Mr. Gravelle said.

"Right now it's on hold, and where it goes from here is totally dependent on the company," he added.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Ritz said his office had no additional comment or details Sunday, pointing to a statement released Saturday. Mr. Ritz called the layoffs a "private sector business decision," and said his thoughts were with the workers and the community.

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"Today's news does not change our government's commitment to ensuring safe food for Canadian consumers," Mr. Ritz said in a written statement.

The XL Foods plant is the second-largest meat packer in the country and slaughters and processes more than one-third of Canada's beef.

The plant's license was suspended on Sept. 27 after the CFIA determined that food safety controls at XL Foods were inadequate. The agency has also put out food recall notices for products that originated at XL Foods and were distributed across North America.

The president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union local 401, which represents the employees at the plant, called the announcement of layoffs "poor management."

Doug O'Halloran said that several hundred of the laid off workers may be forced to leave Brooks, which he said would create problems once the CFIA allows XL to resume normal operations.

"One of the problems in the past is that they don't have enough workers to operate the plant at full speed, and that has caused some of the issues that led to this," Mr. O'Halloran said.

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