The head of the union representing workers at the Alberta-based XL Foods meat processing plant at the centre of an international beef recall because of E. coli contamination said he was surprised by the company's announcement Saturday that it will be temporarily laying off roughly 2,000 workers.
"I thought we were back on track," said Doug O'Halloran, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401.
"The CFIA was saying how everything was good and ... [one of the owners], a Nilsson brother, was in the paper there saying, 'You know, it's going to be business as usual, we've got everything done,' what have you. We were excepting that if they didn't start killing up to full production they might have a few layoffs, but there was no way we anticipated that we'd have everybody laid off."
The plant, located in Brooks in southern Alberta, employs roughly 2,200 workers.
"The management called our reps in from Brooks in to the plant today, or this afternoon, and advised them that the workers would be laid off except for maintenance and four or five other individuals," said O'Halloran.
"And they didn't know how long that the layoff would be for. It would be until they get their inspection back."
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency suspended the licence of the meat processing plant on Sept. 27 — three weeks after tests by U.S. and Canadian officials first found E. coli in beef from the facility — after it determined that deficiencies identified earlier in September had not been corrected.
"It is with deep regret we have announced the temporary layoff of 2,000 employees today," said Brian Nilsson, co-CEO of XL Foods, in a release.
"For the past three weeks employees have received full pay on their 32-hour weekly guarantee with few scheduled shifts available. We have paid our valued team members out of a commitment to our workforce and to assist them through this difficult time."
On Thursday, the plant in Brooks was given permission to resume limited meat processing under the supervision of CFIA.
The agency said it verified appropriate cleaning and sanitization practices have taken place and other maintenance problems — such as drainage, condensation and ice buildup on freezer doors — have been addressed.
Meat will remain under CFIA detention until it has been determined the plant is effectively managing E. coli risk.
But the plant’s licence is still suspended, and it will not be able to resume normal operations until the CFIA confirms it is safe to do so.
CFIA officials did not give a timeline for when the plant can start accepting new cattle and exporting meat, saying "it will take as long as it takes."
In a statement released by XL Foods on Saturday, the company says it has been working with the CFIA to demonstrate the implementation of enhanced protocols.
"CFIA has not provided a definitive timeline for relicensing of the Brooks, Alberta facility," the statement reads. "It is this uncertainty that has forced the temporary layoffs."
Nilsson said XL Foods is committed to the best interests of the cattle industry, their employees, the City of Brooks — which has a population of roughly 13,500 people — and "all affected by the idling of the Brooks facility."
"We are hopeful that the CFIA will bring this to a swift and viable resolution," he said.
Meanwhile, authorities confirmed three more E. coli cases have been linked to the XL Foods meat plant in Brooks — one in Quebec and two in B.C.
The total number of people who got sick after eating meat linked to XL Foods is now 15 — seven in Alberta, one in Newfoundland, four in Quebec and three in B.C.
According to the CFIA, more than 1,800 beef products have been recalled.
CFIA expanded its recall again Friday night to include some beef products sold in Ontario and Quebec.
Product details can be found onCFIA's website.