EDMONTON — Sporting pro-Alberta beef T-shirts and aprons outside the province's legislature, the Wildrose Party is calling for an investigation at the meat plant that spawned an E. coli outbreak and brought the province's beef industry to its knees.
"Once this is over we need a full and complete investigation to find out what went wrong," Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said Wednesday.
"I think Albertans need to know that, I think Canadians need to know that, I think the world needs to know that if we're going to restore confidence that we know what to do when these types of incidents happen in the future."
Smith said an independent investigation may be necessary.
"What I would love to see is a joint press conference with members of the company, members of the CFIA, members of Alberta Agriculture, answering all the media questions about what went wrong, what are we doing to fix it, and what do we need to know about whether or not we're going to have any continued contamination," she said.
Smith isn't the first to draw a distinction between how Maple Leaf used upfront communication and publicly took responsibility to deal with the tragic listeria outbreak of 2008, and XL Food's invisible presence since a rash of E. coli cases. XL's beef items as far afield as Asia have been recalled.
The company's Brooks, Alta., plant, has had its operating license suspended since Sept. 27.
Brooks MLA Jason Hale, also of the Wildrose Party, said the company has spent $1 million in renovations to increase safety at the factory.
"Food safety must be the first priority in and around that plant," he said.
In Brooks, the United Food and Commercial Workers president Doug O'Halloran said the union has 2,200 workers at the plant.
"This is a tragedy that should never have happened," O'Halloran said, extending sympathies to families affected by the E. coli outbreak.
The union leader said there is a desperate need for an improved culture of food safety at the plant -- and a culture of fear of reprisal by the company if the workers raise concerns over food safety.
He told reporters that the union has repeatedly asked XL Foods for changes that would improve food safety at their Lakeside plant in Brooks.
"They're going to be back at work in a few days, but nothing has been done to address the issues that led to this problem," he said.
The company has hired an increasing number of temporary foreign workers from Africa and the Middle East, O'Halloran said, and XL Foods hasn't ensured they have adequate training or awareness of their rights.
"Whistle-blower protection is particularly important for temporary foreign workers," O'Halloran said.
"Their ability to stay in Canada is dependent on their employment, which they feel would be threatened if they came forward with their concerns. Canadian citizens who work at the plant are also afraid to come forward because of fear that they will lose their jobs," he said.
A key issue is line speed, he said.
"Higher speeds in processing carcasses have led to shorter times to ensure equipment and meat is clean. On extraordinary days, when workers are missing from work, the line speed needs to be adjusted downward," he said.
O'Halloran issued a warning to the company, saying that if nothing improves at upper management and ownership of XL Foods, the union will be forced to push for new ownership in order to protect the public on food safety issues, O'Halloran said.