Industrial meat production shortfalls are catching up to us

Getting this out of the way: I am a vegetarian that occasionally eats fish – a pescatarian if you will. When I hear of meat related disease outbreaks, I admittedly feel slightly vindicated for my lifestyle choices. Let’s be clear, I get absolutely no satisfaction when deaths are related to any food consumption – kinda goes against the principle of my choice and all. The below post comes out of years of interest in the industrial food complex and what pitfalls it presents. I also live in southern Alberta and am a born and raised Albertan. I know many people who depend on the livestock industry for their livelihoods. I am not opposed to people having jobs or even eating meat.

Moving on.

This on-going e coli contamination, a terrible incident that is causing severe damage and even death of persons across the country, does point to a larger issue that North Americans are facing with their concept of “food” that will only become more of an issue in the future.

Cargill Foods and XL Foods reportedly slaughter 90 per cent of Canada’s cattle. Alberta farmers and ranchers raise 40 per cent of Canada’s cattle, and more than 60 per cent of Canada’s cattle are slaughtered at XL Foods.  The particular packing plant in question here, located in Brooks, Alberta processes more than 48oo cattle daily.  In 1978, according to the National Farmers Union, there were 17 federal inspected beef packing plants in Alberta along. Presently there are only the two mentioned above.

Alberta has very strict laws regarding farm slaughter of farm raised animals. They simply do not allow it. Animals raised on farms and ranches are sent to a provincial, federal or EU approved facility – depending on where the meat is to be exported to.

There is a small and narrowly defined exception to this:

More often than not, farm raised animals are sent to large feed lots and then to industrial slaughter houses.

Today, highly specialized cattle feedlots feed most of the province’s cattle to market weight. Alberta’s natural resources and climate are especially suitable to the cattle feeding industry. There are now 4,000 feedlots in Alberta, making the province the fifth largest cattle feeding area in North America. Although feedlots can range in size from a capacity of few hundred head to almost 40,000 cattle at one time, the larger-sized feedlots now finish the majority of cattle in Alberta. About 100 feedlots with capacities over 1,000 head produce at least 75 per cent of the finished beef cattle in the province. (via Alberta Beef Producers)

Feedlots are industrial complexes that are prime breeding grounds for serious infections and the spread of disease. The negative components of feedlots are often outweighed for industry by the large amount of product that can be moved through to slaughterhouses that can continue to output enough beef, or what have you, to feed an insatiable appetite for meat.

In order to genuinely patrol a huge industry, there needs to be strict regulations that are upheld. There needs to be an inspection agency with the mandate and the ability to ensure complete compliance with food safety.

According to the CFIA’s plans and priorities report from May 2012, spending on food safety this year will be $340.3 million, falling slightly to $337.5 million by 2014-15. That’s less than was spent on food safety the year before the Harper Conservatives came to power ($341.5 million) and considerably less than the $379 million the CFIA spent on food safety in 2006-07, the Conservatives’ first full year in power. (From the CP)

With this serious outbreak, and significant economic impact, political positioning is at an all time high. This coming from a provincial government who once boasted a leader whose solution to the BSE crisis was to go back in time and have the farmer who reported an ill cow, “shoot, shovel, and shut up”.

Political leaders are not going quite so far this time around, but they are eager to blame every level or regulator but themselves.

When it comes down to it, industrial food output is complicated and dangerous. When feedlots create waste that leaks into ground water it affects the entire water system, putting increased pressure on our treatment centres. When our food is created through an industrial food industry, an industry that increasingly values production over quality,  it hurts consumers. We are disconnected from our food. We do not learn how animals are slaughtered and become juicy BBQ’ed steaks. We do not see the GMO production that goes into making tomatoes bigger. We choose to turn a blind eye, even as huge cattle trucks headed to whatever slaughterhouse pass us on the highway.

Farmers are going to feel the impact of this. The 2200 people XL foods employes in Brooks alone (one third who are Temporary Foreign Workers) will feel the impact of this. Their livelihoods are subject to this company getting up and running again. As a society, we have created a situation where there is no winning. Should the government pressure CFIA to reopen the plant the workers may have their jobs back and ranchers will be selling cattle again, but the issue of poor regulation remains.

Farmers are prevented from taking control over their own means of production. No longer can a farmer butcher their own livestock on site and sell to a local community. There are few opportunities, and often they come with a price, for people to know the person who raised and killed their dinner. This is supposedly due to safety, but I don’t see how that holds up when we have the international community recalling beef coming out of a certified and inspected plant.

Maybe it is time to look at a redesign of the system. Maybe it is time to look at our consumption. These are big questions, and media like Food, Inc and writers like Michael Pollan  articulate this much clearer and with greater detail. These are important questions. Not to be rushed, but to be considered each and every time we consume.

Our governments, CFIA and XL Foods need to own up to a fundamental truth: our current means of food production is not sustainable.

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