Whatever caused it, the recall is one of the largest in Canadian history, at more than 1.5-million pounds of beef from every province and territory. Nine people have fallen ill, four of them tied by genetic testing to tainted meat. It all raises questions about the system itself – if everything worked, more or less, how can super-shedders be caught in the future? (Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, whose file includes the CFIA, has declined interviews.)
The XL Foods plant is one of the three largest slaughterhouses in Canada; many smaller producers buy killed, skinned and cleaned carcasses from there. It was at another plant – the CFIA won’t say which – that testing on beef trim came back positive for E. coli on Sept. 4. The plant had got the carcass from XL Foods.
A day earlier, U.S. officials found E. coli in an XL shipment at the border. CFIA officials swarmed the Brooks plant trying to figure out what went wrong. But they still let it operate, thinking it was a one-off. People were already getting sick. The recall began Sept. 16, and the shutdown was announced Sept. 27.
Workers say the plant had been speeding up. The morning “A-shift” is being asked to handle as many as 2,400 of the day’s 4,000 cows, said Jean Mulimbi, a union steward with the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada local 401, representing plant workers. The afternoon “B shift” then handles fewer cows and works fewer hours, he said. It leaves less time to clean equipment.
“All this is coming from the line speed,” Mr. Mulimbi said. “...We tried to fix it, but nobody paid attention.”
The production line’s speed has been a bargaining issue at the plant. “One of the most glaring examples of [the company’s] lack of concern is shown by the company forcing high line speeds on workers, even though most of the production areas are operating short-handed,” the union said in a spring update on plant conditions.