Pity the beef producers of our province. They just can’t seem to get a break.
A decade ago it was the BSE “crisis”. This was really less of a crisis than it was about American producers trying to grab stranglehold on their own market by scape-goating Canadian beef.
When it came to BSE, our system worked. Nevertheless, the BSE mess gave traction in the U.S to Country of Origin Labelling that the Canadian federal government is still fighting.
Add to this the natural difficulties of raising beef — the ups and downs of markets and weather that have made it exceedingly difficult for beef producers to make a go of it.
And now we have the largest beef recall in Canadian history caused the E. coli scare — a problem that has absolutely nothing to do with beef producers and everything to do with what happens on the slaughterhouse floor.
However, were that the only problem, it would be caught, contained and fixed by now. Unfortunately, for beef producers, the problem that started on the floor of the XL Foods facility in Brooks, Alta. grew because of slaughterhouse owners ducking public responsibility, bureaucrats in the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) slow to act and a federal Agriculture Minister showing precious leadership in a true crisis.
As Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart aptly put it: “I think there’s plenty of blame to go around at this point.”
It was U.S. authorities that first found E. coli in a shipment of American-bound XL Foods beef on Sept. 4. That it took until Sept. 11 for CFIA officials to get an official response from XL Foods was a bigger problem demonstrating its the agency’s lack of clout with the slaughterhouses.
The CFIA did not issue the first beef recall until Sept. 16. It took until Sept. 27 — three full weeks after the Americans raised the alarm bells and after reports of food poisoning due to E. coli — for the CFIA to temporary suspend XL’s license.
But when a federal government agency does now not have the tools to make the system work, it’s up to the politicians to make sure they do. And what beef producers received from federal Agriculture Minister in Gerry Ritz is political finger-pointing, glib remarks and unhelpful ducking of responsibility.
Simply put, we need better compliance with the law and for Ritz to suggest the Conservatives weren’t able to implement one because of the minority government is nonsense. (The bill that might have helped matters was on the floor when the Conservatives decided to prorogue Parliament.)
Nor was Ritz’s absence in question period helpful when producers needed their Agriculture Minister in Ottawa defending their industry.
But as unhelpful was Ritz’s glib remark at a North Battleford Rotary lunch in which he said he didn’t care where the beef he ate came from. “I know it’s good. I know it’s safe. You have to handle it and cook it properly,’’ he said. The comment came just days before the CFIA temporarily pulled the license from XL — the place were 40 per cent of Canadians do get their beef.
Add to this Ritz’s denial when he finally did return to Ottawa for question period that his government had made any cuts to the food inspection system. That very day, the Parliamentary Budget Office released a report noting the federal government’s plans to cut of $32 million from “food safety and biosecurity risk management systems” at Agriculture Canada and $16 million from CFIA’s “food safety program”.
Those CFIA cuts in the spring budget included 300 jobs and 100 inspectors, the union said.
Finally, XL Foods — who depend on beef producers for their product — took exactly one month after the initial discovery of E. coli to say anything, publicly. They, too, failed the beef producers.
In fact, all have failed our beef producers.
Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 15 years.