Did XL Foods put profits before safety?
The company at the heart of the largest beef recall in Canadian history has shuttered smaller meat packing plants across the country while receiving government money to boost the operations of one massive slaughterhouse.
In part thanks to a $1.6 million grant from the Alberta government, the rate of cow slaughter at the XL Foods plant is 4,500 cattle a day -- a rate that is more profitable for the company, but experts say raises new safety challenges.
“You can’t inspect safety into food. You have to have a culture that values safety. What we’ve seen at XL Foods is that safety is at the bottom of the list,” said Doug Powell, a Canadian-born food microbiologist from Kansas State University.
The Canadian Food Inspections Agency started detailed examinations of the sanitary conditions and equipment at the XL Foods plant in Brooks this morning, after the company claimed that it had dealt with safety issues.
Critics say it’s not impossible for a plant that size to produce safe meat. But the company’s delays dealing with positive E. Coli tests, as well as a history of consolidation of its plants in the name of greater efficiency, could doom the company’s hopes of passing inspector scrutiny.
“We’ve heard silence for weeks. That to me says this is a place that does not value food safety,” Powell said.
That’s despite a $1.6 million grant from the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency to upgrade the Brooks facility to install state of the art technology and allow the plant to double its per-day capacity for ground beef.
Officials at ALMA told CTV News that XL Foods could have applied to get grants to improve safety at the plant, but did not.
It’s not the first time the company has taken government cash for its operations. Almost a decade ago, XL Foods was one of the companies accused in a Canadian parliamentary committee of pocketing some $400 million in government bailout money related to the mad cow scare.
Reports at the time show farmers took home less money for their cattle despite the bailout of the packers, and grocery store prices for beef didn’t change.
“We’re going to ask you to justify a number of actions that we believe have led to profit taking on the backs on an industry that is already on the verge of bankruptcy and collapse,” chair Paul Steckle said in 2003.
In answer, Brian Nilsson, co-CEO of XL Foods, said that he cared about the industry.
“You don’t know how many times my Dad has phoned and said, son, are you doing something wrong? And I said, Dad, I’m not doing anything wrong,” Nilsson said.
After Nilsson Bros. bought XL Foods in 2008, the company has shut down a number of plants, breaking unions and sending much of the cattle to the Brooks plant.
The company shut its meat packing plant down in Moose Jaw in 2009 temporarily, saying there was a lack of cattle, and locking out 140 picketing workers. The next year, the plant was shut down permanently as XL Foods failed to reach a new contract with the United Food and Commercial Workers union.
“We regret that we have had to take such extreme action, but the significant changes in the supply of mature cattle and the global competitive landscape have not allowed the facilities to operate at or near capacity,” Brian Nilsson said at the time.
The National Cattle Feeders Association wanted the government to review the closure on competitive grounds, but the closure went ahead.
In April 2011 the company did 500 layoffs as its Calgary plants XL Beef and XL Meats ceased operations. Within hours the company also closed XL Four Star Beef, a processing plant in Nampa, Idaho, which also employed 500 people.
The company blamed tough economic conditions for the closures. At the end of it, Canadians with one plant in Brooks that provides about 40 per cent of the beef that is produced in this country.
A Cargill meat packing plant makes up another 40 per cent, while a packing plant in Guelph is a distant third. Smaller operations round out the total.
“When I read about a worker having 30 seconds to pick up a sterilized knife and do the gutting process and get to the next animal in line and it all happens again every thirty seconds there has to be worker fatigue. There has to be little issues that are going unnoticed,” said UBC food economist Jim Vercammen.
“The same plant was doing 2,000 animals a day, and now we’re up to 4500, wow, that’s a lot of strain on the system,” Vercammen said. “There’s higher potential for problems in these large plants.”
The plant is now operated largely by temporary foreign workers, which are brought in under a government program, Vercammen said.
“It’s low wage immigrant workers that are doing a lot of this work,” Vercammen said. “It’s not surprising that there’s not pushback.”
All of this is the consequence of the consumer asking for – and getting – cheap meat, he said.
Reached at a press conference, Heritage Minister James Moore said he doesn’t want to think about consolidation while inspectors are doing their job.
“It’s a little bit early to be pointing fingers. Our first obligation is to make sure Canadians have safe food,” Moore said.
If you have a story for The Investigators, call 604-609-6333 or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org