Price to be paid in fallout from XL beef recall

At the time of writing this column, the fate of the XL Foods beef plant in Brooks was still undetermined.

At the time of writing this column, the fate of the XL Foods beef plant in Brooks was still undetermined.

By press time Tuesday, the plant might have re-opened or still be closed.

In the meantime, the urban media has had virtually daily coverage of what is and isn’t happening with the plant and the company.

Some observations on different aspects of the XL situation:

The mainstream media links every new case of E.coli to the plant. Curiously, it’s rarely mentioned that many of the reported cases, after DNA and strain identification, are not linked to the E.coli found at the plant.

Which causes one to ponder — if they’re not from the plant, where are those other cases coming from and why don’t we hear about a total recall for the suspect food products?

Where are the shrill demands from the same urban media that the CFIA must expose the culprits that are the source of those other E.coli cases?

I suspect it’s because those sources might not be beef.

History shows that there is somewhat of a double standard when it comes to food-poisoning reporting. The Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta reports that, on average, 10 people die and thousands get sick every week from food poisoning. Yet the media only goes over the top when these cases involve beef. Few remember that there were significant food-poisoning deaths and sickness in the past that involved spinach and raspberries.

I note that the media continues to demand that the XL owners must publicly show responsibility, guilt and shame. They cite the Maple Leaf Foods case where the CEO apologized endlessly on TV and in print media ads. What commentators don’t seem to realize is that although XL is no doubt sorry for what has occurred, they have no retail consumer brand to protect — therefore, a public confession by XL owners seems pointless.

What the mainstream media also neglects to mention is that they were the recipients of millions of advertising dollars from Maple Leaf Foods when the CEO wanted to reassure the public about their brand.

There is a genuine concern in the industry that XL might not have the financial willingness or interest to keep the plant going, even if it reopens. The recall alone will cost millions, the inevitable lawsuits could cost millions more, and meat-buyers will want to extract significant discounts to again be interested in buying XL beef.

Unless XL has solid insurance to cover all those millions, it might be out of business. If financing the losses becomes a problem, you can expect the Alberta government and its lending agency will be asked to prop up the plant — it’s just too large to see it fail.

In the absence of XL owners making a much more public guilty plea (which might actually be a very clever PR position), much of the blame has been directed toward the CFIA and federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz.

That’s somewhat ironic, as one of the reasons for creating the CFIA was to deflect politically-sensitive food-safety cases away from government politicians and ministers and into the laps of non-partisan bureaucrats. That’s backfired on the government, with the minister being constantly grilled in Parliament and hounded by the media.

The case has exposed a clear problem with the governance of the CFIA. Because of the arms-length approach the government tried to maintain with the CFIA, it grew into what some would say is a bureaucratic bully that was responsible to no one.

That caused fear and resentment with those it regulated, hardly an atmosphere where co-operation is needed to address food safety issues. Only recently did the CFIA even have an appeal process for its decisions.

One exasperating reality is that E.coli and other food-borne pathogens can be almost eliminated through a cold pasteurization called irradiation.

It’s a food-safety process that has been around for more than 60 years and is proven to be effective.

It’s approved for a number of food products, but not beef. In what must be the most determined case of bureaucratic obstruction, Health Canada has spent the last 10 years delaying and blocking a CCA application to have it approved for hamburger. It’s approved in the U.S., where the active duty military consumes only irradiated meat — is there a message in that?

A vaccine has been developed against E.coli 157, but it’s not used to any extent. Skeptics claim it’s not completely effective.

But since when are any vaccines 100 per cent? I suspect it meets acceptable tolerances — otherwise, it would not have been approved. The reality is the cost and logistics of three injections are the main hurdles.

Besides, the vaccine mainly benefits the processor, not the feedlot operator. Now if the beef plant would pay for the vaccine and its application, maybe it would get more use. Perhaps insurance companies will begin to insist on its use if meat companies want to avoid prohibitive premiums for liability coverage for recalls.

Whatever happens to the XL Foods plant — one thing is for sure — somewhere along the line, the primary producer and the feedlot operator will end up paying the price.

Will Verboven is editor of Alberta Farmer.

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