XL Foods to bring back 800 laid-off Alberta workers

XL Foods says it will bring back 800 of the 2,000 workers that were laid off Saturday to the meat processing plant in Brooks, Alta., at the centre of an international beef recall for E. coli contamination.

Beef processing plant prepares for partial reopening Tuesday

XL Foods Inc. management has asked 800 of the 2,000 workers that were laid off Saturday to return to work to the meat processing plant in Brooks, Alta., amid an international beef recall for E. coli contamination. 1:34

XL Foods Inc. management has asked 800 of the 2,000 workers that were laid off Saturday to return to work to the meat processing plant in Brooks, Alta., amid an international beef recall for E. coli contamination.

CBC's Erin Collins, reporting from Brooks on Sunday, said it appeared that the workers were being called back so the plant would be able to partially reopen Tuesday, and that they would be operating exclusively on the processing side and not slaughtering any cattle.

Bringing back the 800 employees is seen as necessary so XL Foods can demonstrate to federal inspectors how the company has made upgrades.

"Pasture, processing, palitizing, tech rendering and all other support areas are to report for work at their rendered time on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012. Maintenance is working their usual shifts," says a recorded message on an employee phone line.

It is unclear if the call back to work is a permanent one, or if the employees will simply be processing the carcasses still at the plant when it was shut down Sept. 27.

The company had announced Saturday it would be temporarily laying off the workers because the Canadian Food Inspection Agency had not provided a definitive timeline for relicensing of the facility. 

"It is this uncertainty that has forced the temporary layoffs," the company said.

Doug O'Halloran, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, the union representing the workers, said the layoffs could be the company's way of speeding up the "multi-stage assessment process" that was underway at the plant.

The CFIA responded Saturday by saying it would be unable to complete its review of the plant's procedures until work resumes.

Timeline for full plant reopening not clear

The CFIA has said the plant will not reopen until management has proven that the plant can produce "safe food." The agency has said that in order to do that, they must observe meat processing at the plant.

"The recall of these employees is key to XL Foods efforts to satisfy the conditions of the temporary licence to demonstrate the implementation of enhanced protocols," said XL Foods in a release.

Meanwhile, provincial and municipal politicians met in Brooks Sunday to discuss how best to help the workers who were laid off.

Many of these employees are new Canadians, permanent residents and temporary foreign workers who face uncertain futures with the continued shutdown.

"We look forward to actively working with CFIA to bring this to a viable and timely resolution to allow the plant to recommence operations." said Brian Nilsson, co-CEO of XL Foods, which he runs alongside his brother, Lee Nilsson.

"I jokingly say they're like the phantom brothers, because I've never seen them," said O'Halloran.

Since the first detection of tainted beef six weeks ago, CBC News has obtained reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, stating that this is not the first time XL Foods has been cited for substandard hygiene and handling.

In 2005, at one Calgary facility, inspectors found issues with the meat handling practices, which presented a great potential for cross-contamination. Inspectors also found that the pest control program was not operating as written.

Based on those findings, Canadian and U.S. inspectors issued a notice of intent to de-list the plant. The agency's inspectors found another sanitation violation in 2006 and again in 2008.

The reports mentioned blood and other liquids were dripping into a basket of edible meat pieces. Also, a tuft of hair was found on a support for a carcass skinning rail as well as surplus pipes filled with blood and dirt on the floor near a hide puller.

The Nilsson brothers have declined to comment on these findings.

"I think they're just arrogant. I think they believe that they were the best in the business, that they were the largest in the business and that they had people that were underneath them that they trusted — and that trust has proven wrong," said O'Halloran.

Thorlakson Feedyard operator and family friend Ben Thorlakson spoke out in support of the brothers.

"They're good people. They're people of integrity. If they make a commitment to turn the situation around, they'll get the job done."