Sometimes I think beef is ubiquitous in our society. In North America you walk down the street of any urban center and you can grab a hamburger. Turn the corner and you can get a fajita filled with beef. Feel like something exotic? How about a beef roti, piping hot from some of the Trinidadian cooks in downtown Toronto? We take it for granted, at least until there is a beef recall and the largest beef slaughtering plant in Canada is shut down because of an E. coli scare. And then its like the world wakes up and there’s a problem.
The XL foods beef processing facility in Brooks Alberta is huge. It kills roughly 33% of Canadian cattle, which is mind-boggling if you think about it. It is ground zero this week as the plant has been shut down after American border inspectors detected E. coli in some cross border beef. Will that plant be able to survive a $50 million hit? If it does fine, but if it doesn’t, it’ll change the whole western Canadian beef business.
The urban media as well as our Canadian politicians have been all over the issue, decrying the problems in the food safety system. In effect, the ubiquitous nature of beef, at least for the moment is gone. The minister of agriculture, Gerry Ritz is going to great lengths to say it’s not his fault. However, the buck has to stop somewhere and regardless of what he says, it was right under his nose.
Food safety can be a very dry issue. For instance I could write about it on some unexpected Thursday and I wouldn’t hear a thing about it. In fact, for some of us it’s even hard to think about. In Canada, we are used to going to the store and buying food, which is safe. We have grown to not even think twice about. However, it wasn’t always that way especially for those of us who live on a farm and killed our own livestock to eat. As society has grown more urban, food safety has become more urban and has gone much more in the background.
I always like to tell the story about me visiting Bangladesh. In Bangladesh the food is either fresh or it will kill you. When I visit Bangladesh, my colleague who pays somebody to shop for him carefully procures the food I eat. That is his food safety system. He trusts this person to buy good food and if that doesn’t happen the person loses his job. He also does this because he has no time to do it himself. Of course in Canada, that example is almost ridiculous.
When I drive the streets and countryside in Bangladesh I often see beef freshly killed on a hook with its head on the ground underneath it. If you’d like some beef, you simply ask the guy beside the carcass to cut you some. You take your chances whether it’s any good or not. Yes, that is a long way from Canada.
So in our current situation in Canada everybody is pointing the finger for somebody to blame. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency or CFIA is responsible for food safety in this country and they were responsible for making sure the beef was safe coming out of the XL plant in Brooks Alberta. There will be a fall guy, and I bet right now it will not be a Conservative politician. This whole thing is a very tough situation, but especially tough for beef producers in Western Canada.
The problem our livestock producers have is a double-edged sword. Beef, pork, chicken turkey, etc. are very close to the consumer’s dinner plate. That is a very good thing, but unfortunately when there is a food safety issue it gets sensationalized and the damage is not paid from some government bureaucrat somewhere or a politician. It is paid directly from the Canadian livestock producer who most likely had nothing to do with contamination in the meat processing facility.
Simply put Canadian livestock producers have many challenges and this latest food safety issue may get out of hand. There is no question the CFIA has its issues. There is no question our Minister of Agriculture has his shortcomings. All you got a do is cook beef correctly, raising the temperature to a point where the beef is safe. However, regardless of all the good intentions when somebody yells fire in a crowded theater, like Oprah Winfrey did many years ago about not buying hamburger again, Canadian livestock producers gets sideswiped unfairly. This time I hope we don’t go there.
What I will do this week is surely sit down and enjoy some Canadian beef, likely as a hamburger at some far-flung fast food joint on the way to another task. Regardless of what you hear, there are still lots of good Canadian cattle being harvested every day. Yes, food safety is an issue. It’s on the top rung. Let’s just look at the situation with a bit of common sense.