XL bails, to be managed by JBS after E. coli mess

Food safety ain’t simple, it’s hard.

So over a month after reports of illness and E. coli O157 positive samples started rolling in, weeks of outrage, political incompetence, condescending statements and corporate silence, and barely a mention of the sick people, the owners of the XL plant in Alberta have decided food safety is hard, and agreed to be managed by Brazilian-owned JBS USA.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 president Doug O’Halloran told the Globe and Mail, “I think that, initially, it’s a good thing. I’ve been saying from the beginning that they either need new management or new ownership, because the Nilsson brothers were obviously out of their league in running this company.”

So if they were out of their league, why didn’t those 40 inspectors and six veterinarians notice over the years?

Apparently the Americans noticed.

The Ottawa Citizen reports inspectors with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) sent a series of audit reports to the CFIA between 2003 and 2008 detailing deficiencies they had found at Canadian processing plants, including XL Foods facilities.

These audit reports list findings at XL Foods plants that included sloppy record-keeping, equipment held together by duct tape and, in one case, a gruesome scene of animal blood dripping into edible meat products.

One audit in 2003 found non-compliance with food safety procedures serious enough that the company was temporarily delisted as an approved exporter to the U.S.

XL Foods did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Richard Arsenault, the agency’s director of the CFIA’s meat programs division, cautioned against reading too much into findings in the U.S. audits, stating,

“The writing of these reports often lends itself to conclusions that don’t reflect the overall system. Making sure everything is impeccably clean all the time is not the easiest thing to do. Plants are always going to have challenges.”

Good to know CFIA is on the job.

Three years ago, Brian and Lee Nilsson paid $145 million US to buy the Brooks packing facility and adjacent feedlot and fertilizer operations that made Edmonton-based XL Foods Inc. Canada’s largest domestically owned meat processor.

But amid the country’s biggest ever beef recall, the brothers are now handing the keys for their shuttered plant to multinational protein processer JBS USA, and offering to sell those assets, plus a packing plant in Nebraska and two other closed facilities in Calgary and Nampa, Idaho, to the industry giant for just $100 million US.

According to Meatingplace.com, beef industry experts saw JBS USA’s deal to first manage the Alberta, Canada XL Foods plant embroiled in a massive recall, then possibly purchase four plants, a feedlot and farmland for $100 million, as a brilliant stroke with very little downside.

“Its flat-out like finding a diamond ring and it fits your hand,” said one U.S. beef processing executive, noting the plants JBS stands to gain are modern facilities that will take little to no investment to continue operations. “Its as big a coup as I’ve seen in a long time. …

If anyone had the opportunity to buy 45 percent of all the beef in Canada in one afternoon without bidding against another company, I’d say that’s a hell of a deal,” said the beef industry executive, estimating the properties could have commanded $200 million or even $300 million before the recall.”