Head of XL Foods slaughtering plant apologizes, pledges no repeat of contamination problem

By Sarah Schmidt, Postmedia News October 12, 2012 8:54 AM

OTTAWA — The head of XL Foods Inc. apologized unequivocally Thursday to those who were sickened by eating tainted meat and vowed to “making sure this doesn’t happen again.”In his only interview since his company became mired in the largest ever beef recall in Canadian history, a contrite Brian Nilsson, who along with his brother Lee serve as co-chief executive officers of Canada’s largest beef processing company, told Postmedia News this means XL Foods will invest whatever is needed to make sure the food safety gaps at the plant never recur.

He spoke just as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency announced the company was able to resume limited operations at its Brooks facility. Nilsson called the development “a strong first step to moving back to a more normalized operation” after CFIA suspended the plant’s licence on Sept. 27.

“We absolutely take full responsibility and apologize to all those affected,” Nilsson said. “We’re totally committed to making sure that this doesn’t happen again and investing and doing what is necessary to bring that forward.”

Nilsson and his brother have stayed under the radar until now, nearly a month after CFIA announced the first recall of XL beef products on Sept. 16. It has since ballooned to over 1,800 products, many sold under the store brand of some of Canada’s largest retailers and grocers. Tainted meat from the XL Foods plant has also been linked definitively to 12 E. coli 0157:H7 cases in four provinces.

Nilsson, who has weathered blistering attacks in the press for remaining mum for so long, admitted the sweeping recall and related  E. coli cases came “very much” as a surprise to him because he thought the plant had in rigorous safety protocols in place.

The 430,000 square-foot facility slaughters between 3,800 and 4,000 cattle daily. Nilsson defended the speed as “well within industry standards for a plant of that size,” saying the plant has “always worked within CFIA guidelines as far as the amount of cattle that you can process in an hour.”

Edmonton-based Nilsson Brothers Inc. purchased XL Foods Inc. in 1999 and bought the Brooks facility a decade later. Since 2009, Nilsson says the company has “spent tens of millions of dollars on the plant” to modernize the facility and put in additional food safety interventions.

“We had an extensive testing program in the plant and it really was a surprise to us,” Nilsson told Postmedia News.

CFIA, too, was caught off-guard after discovering a positive E. coli finding on beef trimmings from the slaughterhouse during routine CFIA testing on Sept. 4. On the same day, U.S. authorities informed CFIA of a positive E. coli test on beef trimmings from the XL Foods plant at the Montana border. The U.S. shut the border to beef from the XL Foods plant on Sept. 13 and its remains closed.

During its subsequent in-depth review of the plant, CFIA discovered that its own staff stationed at the plant (40 inspectors and two veterinarians, split between two production shifts) failed to identify that the plant wasn’t managing properly its E. coli safety controls.

E. coli comes into meat plants either in the manure on the hides of cows, or via the animal’s intestines, where the bacteria reside. The intestines can be nicked when plant employees split the carcass to remove organs.In addition to a lack of detailed documents outlining required steps when a product tested positive for E. coli or when there were a high number of positives in a 24-hour period, the company was also inconsistent in the way it conducted trend analyses on positives sample, CFIA found.

CFIA also found some sanitation and maintenance issues that would not typically be expected to contribute to E. coli contamination. They included: water nozzles clogged in the primary carcass wash areas; refrigeration units not cleaned as frequently as required; and some employees not wearing beard nets.

In announcing the resumption of limited operations at the facility Thursday, CFIA’s director of western operations said the company had “appropriately cleaned and sanitized” the plant, and dealt with maintenance issues. Normal operations at Canada’s second-largest beef plant will not resume until CFIA can be sure the facility’s new E. coli control plan is working as designed, added Harpreet Kochhar.

“While the plan appears comprehensive and appropriate on paper, we need to confirm its full implementation and effectiveness in action,” Kochhar told reporters, emphasizing no beef products will leave the facility until government inspectors are confident the company’s newly approved E. coli controls are working well.

In addition to the detention of products, no new cattle will be permitted to enter the Brooks facility yet. There are 5,100 carcasses from cattle in the plant that can now be processed, all of which entered the plant before CFIA suspended its licence on Sept. 27.

This means the company resumed in-house cutting and processing of carcasses on Thursday “under strict enhanced oversight,” including additional inspectors, said Kochhar

“This will allow the CFIA to review in a controlled manner the company’s improvement’s to all previously addressed efficiencies. I want to be clear, the plant will not be permitted to resume normal operations until the CFIA confirms in writing that it is safe to do so.”

Nilsson said CFIA will see ramped-up trend analyses and more stringent “bracketing” procedures, which involve the removal from the assembly line of products if they are near any lot that contains a sample of meat that tested positive for E. coli.

“You always detained that product and made sure it didn’t go into commercial but now what you’ll do is you’ll actually analyze and maybe you’ll go out and detain more product to make sure there’s no chance of anything getting out that isn’t safe for Canadians,” he said.

Nilsson added: “You always need to continue to verify and analyze and work hard to make sure your systems are always in place and that is what we’ve done but we will continue to more.”

XL Foods and the Brooks facility are just one piece of a large web of livestock-based operations owned by Nilsson Bros. Inc. Its other holdings in Western Canada including auction markets, feedlots and cow-calf ranches throughout Western Canada. Nilsson Bros. also offers livestock financing and farm and ranch insurance.

The family livestock business stretches back to 1927, when Nilsson’s grandfather, Thor, brought the family to Canada from Sweden. Nilsson’s own father, Bill, began buying and selling livestock at the age of 15.In 1987, the brothers brought the business from their father and the company now reaches into all areas of livestock and beef processing.

It also means this homegrown Canadian company can compete against a multinational corporation such as Cargill, which operates the only beef processing facility in Canada that is larger than the XL plant in Brooks. Cargill’s facility in High River, Albert processes 4,500 head of cattle each day.

“Like countless success stories, XL Foods started with a dream when cattlemen came to Western Canada to raise quality beef cattle on the prairies and in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Cattle could feed on lush native grasslands and drink pristine water sourced from a series of wells, creeks, rivers and streams,” according to promotion material from XL Foods.

It adds: “Maybe what makes XL Foods a little different from other companies is that we haven’t forgotten where we came from. The business was built on trust, when all it took to close a business deal was a look in the eye and a firm handshake. Of course times are more complex these days but the same principle applies — our word is our commitment.”

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