The Alberta meat plant at the centre of an international meat recall because of an E. coli outbreak could reopen as soon as the end of this week, says a Canadian Food Inspection Agency official.
Richard Arsenault, CFIA director of meat programs, says tests at the XL Food plant in Brooks are underway.
"They'll finish cutting up and we'll do our assessment and that shouldn't be something that takes a terribly long amount of time, so either the end of this week or the beginning of next week sometime. It depends how the plant performs," he told CBC News on Monday.
Roughly 800 workers are to return to the plant on Tuesday to finish processing the remaining carcasses at the facility.
But that reprieve for laid-off employees is temporary, and the workers will only be processing meat from animals killed before the plant was closed.
Arsenault said that if that work goes well the plant will be one step closer to resuming the slaughter of cattle and shipping of meat.
"If the plant can demonstrate to us that it has a full commitment and can operate in full compliance then the next step would be to see progressive reopenings of the other activities in that plant," he said on Sunday.
Doug O'Halloran, the head of the union representing XL Foods workers in Brooks, said that he expects deficiencies identified at the plant will be addressed in the short term, but better industry standards are needed to stop incidents in the future.
"I think that all food plants are a heartbeat away from a problem, and XL Foods here is no different," O'Halloran told CBC's Evan Solomon on Power & Politics Monday. "If we don't get more inspectors in the plant to ensure that things are being done properly, and if there's not enough care done for the workers to be able to perform their tasks adequately, it's only a matter of time till this happens again."
The XL Foods plant’s licence was suspended on Sept. 27 because of concerns about E. coli contamination and deficiencies identified by CFIA at the facility.
Limited meat processing under CFIA supervision resumed at the plant last Thursday, part of CFIA’s "multi-stage assessment process."
But that process came to a halt on Saturday when XL Foods announced it would be laying off 2,000 workers temporarily because the CFIA had not provided a definitive timeline for relicensing of the facility.
"It is this uncertainty that has forced the temporary layoffs," the company said.
Brian Nilsson, co-CEO of XL Foods, said Saturday the company had been paying its employees full pay on their 32-hour weekly guarantee for the past three weeks with few scheduled shifts available.Brooks, Alta.
The CFIA responded Saturday by saying it would be unable to complete its review of the plant's procedures until work resumes.
"My thoughts are with the workers and the community affected by this private sector business decision," said federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz.
"Consumer confidence is critical for Canada's beef industry, and that's why we won't compromise when it comes to the safety of Canadians' food."
XL Foods responded on Sunday saying it would recall 800 workers "to satisfy the conditions of the temporary licence to demonstrate the implementation of enhanced protocols."
Workers still uncertain about future
Some of the other 1,200 staff that were temporarily laid off at the plant Saturday are still wondering what the future holds for them.
Arriss Estrella and many of the other laid-off workers are new to Canada, and he said they are worried about making ends meet.
"Thinking about where we are going to get those bill payments, especially those house payments," he said. "I am looking for a job right now."
Opening the plant can't happen fast enough for Alberta's Agriculture Minister Verlyn Olson.
He said having so many people out of work in Brooks and a major beef plant closed is hard on the economy of the entire community, which has a population of roughly 13,500.
"The common stress that everybody has when you are a plant worker or you are a producer is a little bit of uncertainty as to when is this going to be resolved," said Olson.
The CFIA says that question will only be answered once it can ensure the plant will produce food that is safe for Canadians.
EI applications underway
Dozens of XL Foods workers came to the Brooks immigration offices so staff can help them file employment insurance paperwork.
Mohammed Iridiss says he processed more than 60 applications by XL Foods workers on Monday morning.
Newell County Reeve Molly Douglass, who represents the municipality surrounding Brooks, said ranchers are also concerned about cattle prices.
"Ranchers are a very resilient group," she said. "They've been around a long time and have survived.
"The workers, that's a different ball game because … many of them are under temporary foreign worker visas and they aren't quite as resilient.
"So those are a bunch of people that certainly concern us all at a local level as well as the producers."
Opposition MPs repeat call for minister to go
The federal New Democrats are again calling for Ritz's resignation. Opposition NDP Leader Tom Mulcair says the beef recall is putting farmers and ranchers at risk.
But Ritz maintains his role is to ensure food safety inspectors have sufficient regulatory power to do their jobs.
Meanwhile, Alberta's agriculture minister toured the province's other big meat packing plant this afternoon.
Olsen was at Cargill in High River to check out its food safety measures. Cargill processes roughly 4,500 animals a day.
Olsen said there is no emergency plan or emergency money for the layoffs at XL Foods in Brooks.
He reiterated that Alberta beef is safe.
Industry representatives told a news conference held after the Cargill plant tour that a marketing campaign is coming soon to reinforce the minister's message about Alberta beef being safe.