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If it's Alberta, it ain't going across the border: Time to connect the dots on XL Foods

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Alberta Bets

Do you remember that brilliant advertising campaign, "If it ain't Alberta, it ain't beef”?

Well, nowadays -- as the continental recall of beef products from the sprawling XL Foods meatpacking plant in Brooks, Alberta, the largest slaughterhouse in Canada, keeps growing and growing and growing -- a lot of people are starting to substitute the last word in that slogan for something else.

If it ain't Alberta, at least a few folks are concluding, it's less likely to be …

Unfortunately for Alberta’s beleaguered beef farmers, the people coming to that conclusion include not just Canadian and American consumers but the U.S. Customs Service!

Or how about that ubiquitous Alberta bumper sticker, "I [HEART] [ALBERTA MAP] [BEEF]"?

A lot of us, even here in red-blooded Alberta, are thinking about going vegetarian and changing the last pictogram of that one to read "Alberta Beets."

With consumers all over North America being warned to toss their beef steaks, burger, roasts and heaven knows what else for fear of being poisoned by E. coli from Brooks, federal meat inspectors are said to be working night and day to figure out what the heck went wrong at XL Foods.

The trouble is, this is a little like closing the proverbial barn door after the proverbial horse is gone -- and I’ll tell you something, that's lucky for the horse, because a lot of Albertans would feel safer eating horse steaks these days than the beef variety. (They don't even ask for a receipt at my St. Albert grocery store any more. They just take your beef, chuck it in a bin and fork over the price on the label.)

As Edmonton Journal columnist Paula Simons rightly put it Friday, part of the problem was caused by the "glacial" response by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

A U.S. food inspector discovered the problem on Sept. 3. The Americans found more on Sept. 12. But the CFIA, obviously way too concerned either about the feelings of the company or what their bosses in Ottawa might say, futzed around until Sept. 16. Then it issued a nothing-to-worry about report in Canada only. No mandatory recall.

The Calgary Herald said yesterday the CFIA had warned we should brace ourselves for "a series of recall announcements over the next few days." Sure enough, this morning the Canadian Press reported helpfully that the list of recalled products is so long "consumers are advised to inquire at the point of purchase whether the beef they're buying came from XL Foods."

As for XL's Edmonton-based parent company, Nilsson Brothers Inc., they've got nothing at all to say for themselves -- an obvious indication they didn't make it to their class in Public Relations 101! If they had, they'd know that’s a surefire way to poison your "brand" forever.

Needless to say, none of this does any good for Alberta beef producers or their reputation.

"The Lakeside plant went right on processing Alberta beef, for markets across the United States and Canada. XL … went on assuring consumers that its beef was safe," Simons wrote. Yet it wasn't until last Thursday that the CFIA took meaningful action.

Our federal government will probably try to spin this into an attack on the public service, but the problem is really the opposite.

Neoconservatives in the Harper government are big proponents of self-regulation by companies like XL Foods, and it's happening already. But that's a problem when both the federal and Alberta governments can be counted upon to put short-term corporate whims ahead of the needs of consumers and farmers, in this country and elsewhere.

Indeed, a spokesperson for the union in the plant, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, told the Herald workers have been raising concerns that far too many carcasses are being processed far too quickly in Brooks. "You can’t do that much work in that short a period of time without worker and public safety being compromised," said Tom Hesse.

But as usual in Alberta, the concerns of workers, even when they’re obviously in a position to know what they're talking about, appear to have been brushed aside by those who think they know better ex officio.

Meanwhile, the government meat inspectors' union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, says the Harper Government’s $56 million in cuts to CFIA will result in the loss of about 100 meat inspection jobs across Canada.

"There has been a systemic change in the way inspections are done in these large facilities," a PSAC spokesperson told the Globe and Mail yesterday. "Most of the inspection sampling, the day-to-day work that was done in the past by CFIA inspectors, is now done by plant personnel."

For its part, the CFIA insists it had enough inspectors in the plant. So does federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz.

But it's very hard to believe the Harper government's continued assault on public service jobs, the resulting job insecurity, the pressures on government inspectors to accommodate corporations no matter what, and the federal Tories' ideological belief in the benefits of letting corporations regulate themselves all didn't contribute to a deteriorating state of affairs in Brooks.

From our governments, meanwhile, all we hear is bland assurances that there's nothing to worry about and complaints about "too much" regulation.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford tells us not to worry. Agriculture Minister Verlyn Olson even made a photo-op out of going to his grocery store in Camrose yesterday, trailed by TV camerapersons, to buy burger and steaks. (Do you remember British politicians buying British beef during the mad cow outbreak in the early 1980s? Where are they now, I wonder?)

But I think we should worry. If you thought the seven E. coli drinking-water deaths and 2,500 poisonings in Walkerton, Ont., a dozen years ago had settled such questions as who is best equipped to do safety inspections and why problems should be reported fully, frankly and quickly, well, guess again.

I think you're right to worry if you're a farmer, if you're an agricultural products worker, if you're a meat-eater, if you love someone who eats meat, or even if you don't particularly care about those meat-eaters but are just a decent human being. (That's why I say Olson should cook his steaks all the way through this weekend.)

As for Ritz and the other Harperites in Ottawa, they should immediately connect the dots and rescind their cuts to CFIA, for the good of Alberta's beef industry and the rest of us.

But how likely do you think that is?

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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