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Jack Knox: Beef world turned upside down

Oct 04 2012

Tough week for the carnivores. First we hear dire predictions

of a global pork shortage, conjuring up images of desperate bacon junkies eating strips of fried football for breakfast.

Now butchers and consumers alike wonder if the XL Foods fiasco will push up beef prices or even empty shelves.

It points, once again, to how vulnerable we are when our food supply is concentrated in so few hands.

XL Foods is one of just two meat processors who supply B.C. with most of its beef. When the Canadian Food Inspection Agency suspended operations at the company's Brooks, Alta., plant after the detection of E. coli last week, it left Cargill Meat Solutions of High River, Alta., as our major source.

Prices haven't spiked yet, but the laws of supply and demand suggest it could happen. "It's a little soon to say, but if they don't get that plant open soon, we are going to see the effects of it," said Rick Fisher, the president of Langford's Glenwood Meats, on Wednesday. Already, some products are a little hard to come by.

On the other hand, demand might drop if skittish consumers are scared off by the biggest beef recall in Canadian history. Too soon to tell, says Thrifty Foods' Ralf Mundel. Either way, the ripples spread upstream and down - ranchers, truckers, distributors, feedlots - when a big player like XL's Brooks plant, which employs 2,000, is sidelined.

Shoppers might go hunting for local frou-frou beef - grass-fed, organic, drug-free, hand-raised by hippies - as an alternative, but asking the Island's few remaining beef producers to pick up the slack is like asking the 26-car Mill Bay ferry to handle all the traffic when the Malahat is closed. Vancouver Island can't come close to feeding itself.

This is the danger of concentrating food production. We learned that back in 2004, when avian flu wiped out the Fraser Valley's poultry industry - 17 million birds were slaughtered - emptying supermarket shelves throughout B.C.

By then, Vancouver Island's own poultry industry had largely migrated to the mainland. After Vancouver Island lost its major poultry processors - Langford's Lilydale plant closed in 1999 and Fatt's Poultry in Central Saanich before that - the chicken farms soon followed. When Metchosin's Volk family shipped their last birds in 2006, that left only a handful of broiler farms on an island that once had 37.

All livestock growers felt the impact of stricter meat-inspection regulations implemented in 2007. Small-scale producers on Vancouver Island, fearing their profit margins would disappear, called the rules a cure in search of an illness, with problem-free mom-and-pop farms killed off by measures more suited to industrial-scale agriculture.

By the time the new reality had sorted itself out, many Island farmers had stopped raising cattle, poultry and pigs. We weren't left with a lot of government-inspected slaughterhouses, either. The lone Victoria-area one, in Metchosin, does mainly lamb. Duncan, which once had 14 abattoirs, has three inspected ones now. A few others are found up-Island.

All are pretty small. Where one of our outfits might process a couple of cattle a week, the Cargill plant in High River does 4,500 head a day.

Even before the stricter inspection rules were introduced, local livestock had been disappearing: The number of Vancouver Island farms with beef cattle fell from 460 to 353 between 2001 and 2006. The number of dairy farms slipped from 96 to 74.

Fruit and veg growers struggle, too. Land prices, labour costs and a short growing season make it hard to compete - at least on price - with the economies of scale achieved elsewhere. Say what you want about the evils of Wal-mart-sized industrial agriculture, but it has given consumers relatively inexpensive food for a long time. The grocery bill as a proportion of the average Canadian's income fell steadily after the Second World War, finally bottoming in 2007, after which food costs began to rise again.

That's the advantage of putting all your eggs in one basket. The downside comes when you drop the basket and the eggs break.

> Information delay cited, A9

jknox@timescolonist.com

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