Food safety outcry grows
September 22, 2008 By Calgary Herald
Sept. 22, 2008 — Food safety has emerged as a major federal campaign issue as a listeriosis outbreak at a Maple Leaf Foods processing plant in Toronto continues to claim lives – 18 and counting.
For one Calgary mother, whose two young daughters fell sick last year with a virulent strain of E. coli from an unknown source, extra emphasis on food safety — from farm to fork — is welcome.
"It gets to the point sometimes that you question whether anything is safe," Tanya Maksymic says.
Indeed, five years after a devastating disease was found for the first time in a homegrown cow, mad cow's fallout is still being felt by ranchers and meat processors who gathered at a Calgary hotel a few days ago to talk about fallen exports.
The cattle crisis never claimed a human life, but widespread fears of meat tainted with bovine spongiform encephalopathy possibly infecting people with a form of brain-wasting disease set off border closures around the world, many of which remain closed today. The cost in lost beef exports has been huge — $700 million in 2006 in Alberta alone.
On a farm south of Cochrane, longtime cattle rancher Harvey Buckley isn't surprised by the increased scrutiny he and other farmers face.
He's noticed interest in food safety growing in recent years as people become more conscious about their health and the environment.
Another shift is increasing globalization. With more food moving around more countries, consumers, government and health officials are increasingly demanding products be fully traceable.
Buckley, a councillor with the Municipal District of Rocky View, is eager to comply.
"The export market is our livelihood," he says. "If any rancher sitting on the hills can't figure that out, they're out to lunch." Although traceability became a priority for the federal and provincial agriculture departments after the mad-cow crisis and emergence of avian influenza in poultry, it isn't yet mandatory in Alberta.
Though many livestock producers have been reluctant to buy in, Groeneveld says, as of January verifying the age and origin of cattle will become a must.
These changes are needed to gain access to more export markets, Groeneveld argues. While he acknowledges some of the restrictions facing Canadian meat are rooted in protectionism, he says strengthening international regulations are also at play.
To underscore his point to the Calgary gathering of ranchers and meat processors, Groeneveld offered a local example. An Alberta processor is shipping in millions of pounds of beef from Quebec because it can't find enough traceable beef here.
"If that isn't a market signal, I sure as heck don't know what is," he says.
At a Calgary butcher shop and deli, co-owner Rick Barnhart says business has in fact picked up since the listeriosis outbreak. He says customers are telling him they don't trust the meat at chain grocery stores.
Cherill Rosenau is one of Barnhart's customers. She drives about 15 kilometres to visit Calgary Meats & Deli once a week.
"They are local. It's all Alberta grown. It's everything you would want to have in a grocery store," Rosenau says, adding she steers clear of "mystery meat." Calgary mother Maksymic has become more cautious about the food she buys since two of her four daughters were inexplicably stricken with E. coli in 2007, part of a wave of 57 cases in the city that summer.
When news of the listeriosis scare broke, Maksymic's heart jumped. In July, Julia battled a serious case of cramping and diarrhea. Maksymic says her daughter's doctor suspects the illness may have been tied to listeriosis.
As a result, cold cuts are another food crossed off her grocery list.
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