Alberta Beef Recall: Another Reason to Eat Locally

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Brad Watt of Rare Grill House prepares his dry-aged beef for grilling.


I’ve had a few people ask me about the recall of Alberta beef, the E. coli contamination at the XL Foods slaughterhouse, and its spread through over 1000 different products.

A couple have asked about the safety of eating beef products.  Another few have asked about sourcing beef locally.

Well, here’s the deal, folks:

  • The larger the factory farm that food comes from, the larger opportunity there is for something to go wrong.  Sure, we usually think of livestock when it comes to this kind of risk, but don’t forget about major spinach recalls during the past decade due to E. coli and Salmonella.
  • The more processing, transportation, and storage steps that any food goes through before it gets to your plate, the more risk there is for contamination.  This goes for meats, produce, and manufactured foods.
  • The larger the production facility that any food has to pass through, the larger chance there is for contamination and cross-contamination. This goes for abattoirs, processing plants, factories, warehouses, whatever.
  • Finally, the bigger the retailer of meats and produce, the bigger opportunity there is for cross-contamination of products.

The current E. coli recall stems from a massive plant, XL Foods, in Brooks, AB.  It processes up to 5 000 cattle per day — or roughly a third of all cattle slaughtered in Canada — and packs meat off to many, many manufacturers, food producers, and retailers.  We know that contamination spread through the XL Foods plant.  There have also been reports that beef from at least one other packing plant in Alberta has tested positive for E. coli. That contamination was the result of beef originating from the XL Foods plant. It is believed that other packing plants may also have been affected. There are many businesses that store XL Food beef, process it into hundreds of products, and have it sold in retail outlets across Canada and the United States. Then there are the hundreds of retail outlets themselves.  Experts suspect that a meat tenderizing process by a Costco store in Edmonton helped cross-contaminate cuts of beef with E. coli from XL Foods. And that is just the one example that we know for certain.

You can see how bigger might not always be better.  In fact, it is usually a whole lot worse.  In this case, it is not difficult to see how the size of an operation, the complexity of production, and the many handling, transport, and storage steps can all increase risk of contamination.  It is almost unbelievable that something like one cow can contaminate so any different processors, packers, manufacturers, and retailers.  We’re talking a recall of a million and a half pounds of beef and ever 1 100 products. Believe it though. It is the nature of our factory food system.  Pretty scary stuff, isn’t it?

So what, as a consumer, should you do?

When it comes to beef, buy your cuts from a local farmer.  Choose one that raises healthy, preferably grass-fed animals.  The meat your local farmer raises will have been sent to a local meat packer — in our area, chances are good that it will have been Otonabee Meat Packers.  You can follow the path of your beef from farm to table (so that’s where I got the name).

Your second choice?  A quality butcher shop.  Ask your butcher where his beef (or pork, or chicken, or…) comes from.  He should be able to tell you exactly where your meat was raised, how it got to his display case, and all steps in between.  If he doesn’t know or doesn’t want to tell you, then shop elsewhere.  It is that easy.

How sure am I of the local beef that I buy?  Sure enough that I’m not scared of some pink in my hand-formed hamburgers.  I know exactly where it’s been.

This, really, should go for any food you buy.  If you can shake the farmer’s hand, you know where your food is coming from.  If you can ask your retailer detailed questions, you’re almost as good.

Going out for dinner?  Ask your waiter/waitress about where your food comes from.  Really, if they are serving it, they should know.  Or the chef should at any rate.  Better yet, call ahead.  I definitely make some of my dining choices on the purchasing practice of the restaurant.

Remember: You are the customer.  You have the right to ask questions. And you have the right to shop and dine elsewhere.

Knowing where your food comes from is not only a safer bet, it is also a more environmentally and economically sustainable one.  Even without the current risk of E. Coli, shopping for local beef makes a whole lot more sense.

I have to tell you, I love Alberta beef.  I spent a couple of years living in the Rockies and know what a great product there is out there.  And next time I’m in Alberta, you can bet on what I’ll be having.  A great slab of ranch-raised cow.

But I’ll be asking the waitress where it came from first.  Just like I do in Peterborough.


Note: This blog has bumped both a planned review of Reggie’s Hot Grill and a piece on Puffball mushrooms.  I’ll be getting to those entries soon.  Be sure to subscribe to the blog in order to not miss them.