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Time to rebuild more direct connection between consumers and food producers in Alberta

Posted on October 09, 2012 by Richard Einarson

Someone asked me the other day whether supporting more local processing of beef and other food products would be wise public policy. What would that do the cost of food for consumers, especially those who can barely make ends meet, she wondered.

The massive recall of beef from XL Foods in southern Alberta, a plant that processes one-third of all the beef produced in Canada, and the resulting fallout – illness and damage to Alberta’s reputation as a beef producer – illustrates precisely why it would be wise to shift the balance in this province back to a system that includes smaller processors.

Traceability is much easier with smaller companies, thus improving 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 per cent 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 should be shut down. That’s unrealistic, since economies of scale allow them to operate less expensively. Clearly, the federal government must do a far better job of monitoring their production, so that consumers who are mindful of cost can continue to buy their meat from large chain stores that buy from the mega-processors, and be safe in doing so.

But bringing back the small operators will provide more balance in our province's food-supply system and support the rural economy. They can 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.

For these reasons the Alberta Party supports rebuilding a more direct connection between consumers and the producers of food in Alberta. We believe local processors, selling food to local consumers, will be more concerned with health and food security. Local processors will make food traceability easier.
What happened at XL Foods has made people sick, will damage the livelihoods of cattle growers and the more than 2,000 employees at the XL plant. It has cast doubts on the quality of Alberta beef. We believe this is unacceptable.

Food safety is under federal jurisdiction, but the Alberta government has an important role to play in what happens in our food-supply system. The Alberta government can create the conditions that would allow smaller operators to succeed.

Yes, we think it would be wise public policy.

Tell us what you think about this issue in the comments section below. Do we need more diversity in our food-supply system?

William Munsey
President, Alberta Party 

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