Alberta Politics

Spin, silence, and beef boosterism as company and politicians react to XL Foods beef E.coli.

Cow XL Foods Alberta Beef

Until its licence was temporarily suspended on September 27, more than one-third of Canadian beef was processed in the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alberta. The plant processed 4000 cows a day and produces 3000 steaks each minute. The sheer size of this plant raises serious questions about the centralization of the packing industry in Canada and the implications for food security after E.coli contamination in beef produced at the plant has poisoned 10 Canadians. Meanwhile, new E.coli cases in British Columbia and Hong Kong are reported to be linked to XL Foods.

Verlyn Olson Alberta Agriculture Minister
Verlyn Olson

Premier Alison Redford and Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Verlyn Olson spoke out in support of Alberta’s beef industry, but avoided directing questions to federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz about why the federal Canadian Food Inspection Agency took more than ten days longer than their American counterparts to identify the problem.

XL Foods and their parent company Nilsson Brothers Inc. have done an incredible job sowing confusion among Canadians by refusing to speak with the media, only releasing a pre-recorded audio statement late last week.

In 2005, Brian Nilsson and Lee Nilsson, co-CEOs of Nilsson Brothers Inc., XL Foods parent company, were selected as Alberta Venture Magazine’s Top 50 Most Influential Albertans for their role as “major players in Alberta’s beleaguered beef industry.” In 2012, it appears that they have reassumed this role, though not as the champions of the beef industry that they were eight years ago.

As Globe & Mail health columnist Andre Picard wrote this week, “transparency is the hallmark of good crisis communication,” and in the case of this E.coli contamination, this is a textbook case of failing to communicate. As Mr. Picard’s wrote in his column, the communications failure is a result of foot-dragging and inappropriate beef boosterism from XL Foods, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and Minister Ritz.

“When you’re poisoning people, even unintentionally, a voice message three weeks into the outbreak doesn’t cut it, nor do ministerial blandishments, nor do CFIA press releases whining that “investigations into outbreaks of food-borne illness can be complex.” – Andre Picard (Globe & Mail, October 7, 2012).

Danielle Smith Wildrose Party Alberta Election 2012
Danielle Smith

Also ignoring the opportunity to discuss food safety issues in the beef industry is Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith, who will be hosting a lunch-hour 100% Alberta beef barbecue on the Legislative Assembly grounds. Ms. Smith, Little Bow MLA Ian Donovan and Strathmore-Brooks MLA Jason Hale will play the role of champions of Alberta’s beef industry while serving beef burgers at the October 10 lunch (hopefully they will be thoroughly cooked).

New Democrat leader Brian Mason appears to be the only Alberta politician raising questions about the federal government’s role in food safety, questioning recent budget cuts to food inspection.

Some might point to Mr. Mason’s comments as a partisan response, which would not be incorrect, but his is a position not limited to the political left. As was pointed out by Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid, Saskatchewan’s conservative Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart has not shied away from demanding answers from the federal government since the E.coli outbreak was first detected.

Premier Redford and Alberta’s legislators should be standing up for the beef industry not by retreating to old populist tendencies, but by demanding answers from XL Foods, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and Minister Ritz to ensure that this does not happen again.


15 replies on “Spin, silence, and beef boosterism as company and politicians react to XL Foods beef E.coli.”

Another thing this crisis ought to be bringing to light is why we now have so few local processors of beef. At one time, ever community had meat processors. When we moved to having two main processors many local processors couldn’t meet the new standards… but today we see the standards aren’t being adhered to.

The massive recall of beef from XL Foods illustrates why it wasn’t wise to make so many obstacles for local producers. Of course there is a possibility of E.coli in any beef processing process, but traceability is much easier with smaller companies and improves accountability.

If a small meat processor has a supply or contamination problem, it is more easily contained and does not shut down an entire food chain or cause widespread harm to consumers.

We should be asking ourselves: What is the benefit of having two meat processors handle 90% of Canadian beef production? How are the cattle transported to these factories? How are they kept before slaughter? How is the effluent disposed of? How are the workers treated?

This is not to say that the large slaughterhouses shouldn’t be part of our system. That would be unrealistic.

Clearly, federal cuts to CFIA have made keeping on top of the large numbers of cattle being processed difficult. When Gerry Ritz says this crisis proves our system works, he insults everyone who’s currently suffering.

Supporting local operators would provide more balance in our province’s food-supply system and support the rural economy. They could work out costs based on their local markets. Government support for smaller processing companies would foster consumer choice, diversity of markets and choice for cattle growers as well.

What happened at XL Foods has endangered the health of Canadians, will damage the livelihoods of cattle producers and the more than 2,000 employees at the XL plant, and it has again cast doubts (unfairly) on the quality of Alberta beef.

While food safety is under federal jurisdiction, past policies of the Alberta government also play into why this crisis has become so big and will be very painful for many people.

@ William Munsey – Thanks for the comment, Will. Those are great points, especially about the more than 2,000 employees at the XL plant that these health concerns are also directly effecting.

I come from at LEAST 5 generations of cattle producers in my family, some of whom are still going strong, and I am sick at heart at how all this good work is compromised by big packing plants and poor government. The province has a responsibility to everyone to ensure the quality of our food. If they try to pass it off to the Feds and to XL and Cargill we are all at risk.

It was over regulation that caused the smaller butcher shops to close, that we can pin on successive governments, federal and provincial. But the regulations were brought in because of governments succumbing to the whiners about “there ought to be a law”, and their chances to build another small kingdom of unionized drones to keep the union dues flowing. If the CFIA inspectors would stick to the sanitation of the equipment, and stay away of areas their input is not needed things like this would be fewer, but to blame this on the premier or a minister because of crass difference of “party affiliation” only shows the shallowness of the blamer. Grow up people, turn off the “You’re all gonna die” media, fools like the Herald and Journal, WRP lapdogs like the current talk show hosts, and realize your chances of getting hit going to work this morning are far greater than catching E coli from beef. What about the 52 people in Calgary that caught it from lettuce, or the 32 people that got hep A from a cook in the Shell cafeteria, or the thousands that are currently sickened from steroid injections? Where is the outrage and screaming on the talk shows about that, oh no reserve ones anger for the Conservatives. You people are like the idiots that think Bush blew up the towers, it wasn’t Redfords fault. And who cares about the last 4 generations David, the first generation paid for the land through hard work and long term thinking, try that instead of useful idiotism.

Where I live, there is a small butcher shop that is doing just fine with all the regulations. Their prices are slightly higher than the grocery chains and that, to me, is a far greater contributing factor to the centralization of meat processing than regulations. If any of you here buy your meat at Safeway or Costco or any of the major chains you’re likely part of the problem, or at least contributing to the demise of the small butcher shops. You people want to reverse the decentralization of the meat processing industry? That’s relatively easy, seek out and support retail outlets that don’t use centralized meat processing services. You may have to drive a bit and pay a higher prices than you would at Costco but the more people who support the smaller operations, the more viable that sector becomes. Simple stuff, really.

Thanks for the article. As much as we can lay blame on the politics behind a food scare like this, I agree with Darren. The real problem lies with us. I recently wrote about events like this massive beef recall, questioning what it will take for people to start realizing the benefits of smaller scale, less centralized, more local production.
Even at the best of times we are afraid of our food. Why have we let it come to this? What will it take to get people to pony up a couple extra dollars for healthier, better tasting food?

I blame the CFIA Federal government agency & the minister in charge who seems to think he has no responsibility in the E coli mishap. Leaking roofs,pluged drainage,sanitary & washing racilities???in a private enterprise that is responsible for shipping product all over the country,The CFIA has looked at the plant once or twice since the outbreak???There should be inspectors in that plant 24/7 until you could eat off the floor in the cutting room.i think that the minister in charge(joke)should get sombody to explain his responsibilities to him

Hi — what everyone seems to be missing is that the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) has 37 inspectors housed full-time at the Excel plant.

Skeptical Scott makes a valid point. The CFIA website says that for the last 12 months it has assigned 40 inspectors and 6 veterinarians to work full time at the XL Food plant and that they work in 2 shifts to “ensure full coverage whenever the plant is operating”. One has to wonder about their competence given their failure to spot the egregious breaches of their own regulations.

The fingers should point directly towards the owners and management of this plant, not the Ministers’ of Agriculture or the vets or the inspectors.

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