On September 4, the United States Food Safety and Inspection Service informed the Canadian Food Inspection Agency that a shipment of Alberta beef was tainted with E. coli. It took nine days for CFIA inspectors to arrive at the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alberta for further testing, and another three days before a massive recall of products from across Canada, the U.S. and Peurto Rico ensued. On September 27, the CFIA temporarily suspended XL Foods licence, leaving its more than 2,000 employees in financial limbo. To date, four people in Alberta have been infected with the E. coli strain linked to the XL Foods outbreak.
With recent cuts to the CFIA, the Harper government has left the onus on agriculture corporations to regulate their own food safety measures. Now, with the largest beef recall in Canadian history, the government has come under attack for not protecting its citizens adequately.
XL Foods is also facing condemnation for lacking food safety diligence in its internal operation.
Though providing consumers with quality product is important, making money is the bottom line for most companies. Therefore, it is assumed that there would be a conflict of interest in company inspectors.
XL Foods is the largest slaughterhouse in Canada. In 2004, the Brooks plant processed about 35 per cent of Canada’s beef. The billion dollar beef industry is Alberta’s highest grossing in the agriculture sector.
Last fall, during a collective bargaining agreement with XL Foods in Brooks, union negotiators raised concerns about the high number of carcasses being processed. Union members felt that a 4,800 cattle per day quota was too high to maintain without compromising both public and worker safety. The issue was quashed without resolve and it was business as usual for XL Foods until recently.
The more than 1,500 products torn off shelves cannot be attributed to incompetent government officials or morally duplicitous corporations. The massive dumping of suspect beef is a result of our own fear-fueled ignorance.
This public safety scare typifies the relationship most Canadians have with their food. Most of us know very little about where it’s coming from and what’s in it. We know even less about the people producing it and the conditions through which it is being produced. Worst of all, much of the food that we depend on is harming us in unknown ways.
So far, we know that the beef being recalled is potentially tainted with E. coli. How this contamination occurred is still a mystery. XL Foods representatives, who have remained relatively silent throughout this ordeal, are being condemned for not informing the public sooner about the contamination.
E. coli is a bacteria found in the gastrointestinal tract of many animals, including humans, but most of us don’t know much about the deadly strain that makes people sick. According to a Cornell University study, the E. coli 0157: H7 strain is found in significantly higher rates among grain- or corn-fed beef. Feeding cows grain has now become an industry standard as it fattens the animal quicker than grass-fed counterparts.
The XL Foods recall gives canadians a glimpse into the fallible system we have come to depend on for our sustenance. When we go to our local grocer and travel down the aisles, we should begin to question where our foods are coming from. It is time that we begin to ask ourselves if those who provide for us have our best interests at heart. Can we really trust the labels stamped onto a film of plastic wrap?
As answers emerge, we might decide on alternatives to the beef cartel in Alberta by shopping at farmers’ markets or getting involved in community-supported agriculture. Learning where food comes from and how it is processed is the first step to making informed choices. Maybe then Canadians will eliminate outbreaks of fear.