Gerry Ritz is the least of our problems

The way we process meat in this country is a recipe for disaster

by Martin Patriquin

Canada's Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

Should Ariculture Minister Gerry Ritz resign? Sure, what the hell. If a politician’s main job during a crisis is to assuage fears and manage PR, then on that basis alone Ritz should have the good sense to realize he’s utterly pooched the job. And I’m not even talking about the current meat-related crisis, in which Ritz disappeared from the House for three days, made a series of baffling and demonstrably wrong statements about the size and scope of the recall at XL Foods, and generally mishandled a sensitive and potentially life-and-death file.

No, I’m talking about that other meat-related crisis that occurred under Ritz’s watch in 2008, in which 22 people died following a listeriosis outbreak at a Maple Leaf Foods processing plant in Ontario. Ritz, you’ll recall, made light of the crisis during a conference call with government officials. “This is like a death by a thousand cuts. Or should I say cold cuts,” Gerry (Putting On The) Ritz said. He then expressed his hope that a recent listeriosis-realted death in P.E.I. was that of Liberal agriculture critic (and proud son of North Wiltshire) Wayne Easter. PR 101: making fun of the dead and wishing death on your political opponent is generally a bad thing, and the fact Ritz still has a job after that little darling bit of callousness says something about the depth of the Conservative caucus, or the pigheadedness of the Conservative government, or both.

But be aware: even in the unlikely event that Ritz is turfed from his ministerial position, the meat-producing industry will remain as dangerous and disease-prone as it was yesterday afternoon. That’s because at its heart, the problem isn’t political; it’s structural. Put another way, people aren’t going to get sick because of the whatever bon mots happen to trickle out of Ritz’s face. They’ll get sick because of the way meat is produced in this country, a process that predates Ritz by a country mile.

According to several news reports, XL Foods processes roughly 40 per cent of all domestically consumed beef in Canada. I couldn’t confirm the number, as the Canadian Meat Council “does not publish the individual production capacities of its member companies,” according to spokesman Ron Davidson. Yet Davidson would say that “the two largest companies in Canada (Cargill and XL) do indeed account collectively for the significant majority of Canada’s beef production.” Herein lies the problem: if you, like the vast majority Canadians, consume supermarket-sourced cow parts, you have repeatedly (and probably unknowingly) given your business to one of just three processing plants in the country: XL Foods in Brooks, Alta; and Cargill in High River, Alta and Guelph, Ont. And by their sheer size alone, those plants are an ideal way to spread disease.

We are in the midst of seeing what this means in practical terms. In Canada alone, the recall includes hundreds upon hundreds of products from 89 brands and distributors from across the country. There are 37 products at Buy-Low Foods alone. The recall has touched the U.S. and Hong Kong and will likely spread, given that XL exports to 20 different countries. Forget for a second the other unsavoury aspects of the industry—like, say, the fact that feedlots are an ideal way to ensure that your product is covered in feces just prior to being transformed into steak and such. If that cow were slaughtered at a small abattoir, and it happened that the blade of one grinder was tainted with E. Coli bacteria, it would be an isolated problem at worst. But because XL Foods processes upwards of 4,000 heads of cattle a day, that one blade (or, ahem, the lack of hot water) suddenly becomes an international concern. It’s a similar problem that befell Maple Leaf in 2008: two slicing machines at one plant led to a recall of 220 products and 22 deaths.

There’s an obvious solution to this, of course, starting with less centralized slaughtering operations. But that would eat into company profits, and we can’t have that. Consumers can also get butcher-sourced meat, but this is a luxury usually afforded to those who live in larger cities, and who have the means to spend a bit more. Everyone should read Fast Food Nation, journalist (and noted non-vegetarian) Eric Schlosser’s clear-eyed, non-preachy critique of how meat is produced in America. At the very least, you will never look at (or consume) supermarket ground beef again.

By all means, give Gerry Ritz the heave-ho. Just know that the problem goes much, much deeper than one slightly obtuse politician.




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Gerry Ritz is the least of our problems

  1. There’s an obvious solution to this, of course

    Yeah, cooking the beef, properly.

    • That’s funny
      When I buy a product I expect exactly what it says is on the label. I don’t expect it to kill me and I didn’t see “may contain faeces and e-coli” on the label.
      If the meatpackers want to sell us crap they should at least be honest about it.

      • Ever heard of salmonella poisoning and the risk of contamination when handling uncooked turkey, or the downside of stuffing turkey?

        Yeah? I bet you didn’t learn it from reading the label.

        • Beef comes in rare, medium and well done

          Not ‘diseased’

          • Maybe it should be re-labelled low, medium and high risk.

        • In some cases, such as salmonella risk in poultry or trichinosis in pork, yes proper cooking is a solution. In the case of other bacteria, such as e. coli and botulism, the risk is not the bacteria itself but the byproducts it creates. Cooking may kill the bacteria, but the damage may already be done to the food, so no ‘cooking the beef properly’ is not the answer to unacceptably high amounts of e. coli in the raw product.

          • Any evidence that the latest outbreak is due to the byproducts of e.coli?

          • You don’t make any sense.

          • Allow me to dumb it down
            E coli has been established to be the cause behind the latest problem.
            E coli byproducts come naturally along with e-coli.
            Evidence provided.

          • No, I asked if the outbreak (ie sickness) was documented to have been caused by e-coli, or rather the by-products.

            If you don’t know, just say so.

          • So you are insisting that the e-coli that caused the problem (as the cases in the article were said to have been caused) emitted no waste products or produced no by products?
            From my experience that doesn’t happen. If you have e-coli they are accompanied by their by products. Much the same as a slug leaves a slimy trail.

          • If someone got sick from a piece of cheese, it would seem reasonable to ask if it was due to unpasteurized milk as a feedstock, or whether the cheese itself was unrefrigerated, and covered in mold when the person ate a slice. Different solutions depending on the source of the contamination.

            In any event, if cooking properly kills both the e-coli and whatever by-products you claim are produced (there must be a time frame component to this secondary contamination), then perhaps it is irrelevant.

          • Say what? Of course EVERYTHING must be done to get rid of E-coli in our food but we as consumers must also decrease our personal risk of getting sick should there be E-coli in the food we encounter. Cooking ground beef thoroughly is absolutely one answer to decreasing the risk of getting ill. COOKING KILLS E-COLI! We need also really throughly wash or fruits and vegetables in the hope of physically removing any bacteria from them before we consume if we are eating them raw. The last thing must do is wash our own hands after using the bathroom and before and after handling food as well as cleaning all surfaces that touch raw food.
            It is a good thing is demand better standards in our food handlers but at the same time, you cannot be at all complacent and think that they are doing a great job. You need to be pro-active. I am not sure where you got your information but thus far, proper cooking has killed E-coli.

      • Well apparently there is a vaccine out that kills this kind of E-coli in the gut of the cattle. It costs $6.00 a head I believe. If the ranchers start vaccinating their cattle. Then you will only have to worry about E-Coli on the vegetables you buy and off course Salmonella in the eggs and poultry you buy. I won’t be expecting that there will be labelling of those warnings anytime soon so maybe you should just wash things well (vegetables) and cook your meat well (hamburger, poultry). Oh, and there is a new swine flu in the US but this one only passses from pigs to humans so if you are hanging out in the pig barn, make sure you are washing your hands.

        • It appears that it is 9 bucks for three jags that reduce the e-coli and the system falls down if everyone doesn’t do it. Irradiation of the meat on the processing line seems more of a promising way to proceed, but Ottawa is hummimg and hahing about the process even though it is already used for other products. http://www.calgaryherald.com/health/all/coli+vaccine+cattle+market+being+widely+used/7343837/story.html

          Washing dirt off of veggies is a given and achievable, picking pooh from ground meat shouldn’t have to be done and is impossible.

          • You cannot possibly pick feces off of ground meat. Infact there isn’t likely to be any actual feces on the meat. It was probably on the grinder and it was probably a very tiny amount which is all that is required to carry the bacteria which you cannot see. However, you don’t have to pick anything off of ground beef as the E-coli is killed by thorough cooking. Just cook all of your dishes that include ground beef well. Also cook your burgers well. It doesn’t mean you have to burn them. Just cook them so they aren’t pink inside. Even if they do irridate the meat, it is a good idea because the US and Canadian beef industries are so closely related, you don’t know where your beef is coming from and the US has had some HUGE recalls due to E-coli in hamburgers. This is being pro-active.

    • Tell me, what’s the “proper” way to cook steak tartare that solves the problem? I’m quite curious.

      • Garnish it with blowfish. Home prepared.

      • Broodje haring is now my favorite fast food. A bun with a freshly filleted raw haring garnished with raw diced onion and a pickle.

        Tastier and much healthier than a Macdonald’s burger.

        And a good well done steak is an oxymoron.

          • You have to deal with the North American food chain, I enjoy the European food chain — big difference.

          • The European food chain….hmm….as in Germany where sprouts tainted with E-coli killed 53 people in May/June 2011 and the Germans initially blamed Spanish cucumbers? Or where there is a current outbreak of listeria in Italian ricotta cheese? Yes, that food chain seems much safer (insert sarcasm here). Maybe you could have a talk with Putin. He closed the Russian border to ALL vegetables from Europe for the summer of 2011.

        • You don’t have to eat the steak welldone. Just don’t prick the meat. If there is any bacteria, it will be on the outside and will be killed when you put the meat on the grill. That is why you rarely hear of people getting E-coli food poisoning from steak. It happened this time because costco did a needling processes to get a marinate inside the steaks. That processes took the bacteria from the outside of the steak to the inside. When the steak was not cooked through, the bacteria lived and made people sick.

      • Cross your fingers….just like you would eating a raw egg and raw fowl.

        • So basically, you’re willing to write off an entire class of food because this government is incapable of getting proper inspections done.

          I suppose that makes sense. After all, it’s not like you eat it, and if it doesn’t affect you, it must be fine, right?

          • “Proper inspections” , from what I understand, are just statistical sampling. There isn’t 100% testing.

          • “This government”? Exactly what government is going to be able to ensure that ground beef is 100% free of E-coli? There isn’t a country on the planet that can promise this. If you have paid attention to information about meat recalls due to E-coli in the last 10 years you would understand that. By eating raw hamburger you are taking a risk with your health. It is no different than having sex with a stranger without using a condom.
            Given that we first saw a child sick in Alberta with “hamburger disease” in 1993, I am a little surprised and people are so slow to catch on that it only takes a tiny bit of fecal matter on the hands of food handler or in the grinder at a processing plant or restaurant to make people really sick. E-coli is in all the guts of humans and animals.
            It has nothing to do with what I like to eat or don’t like to eat, it is about what risks I am williing to take to eat a certain dish. I don’t drink eggnog made with raw eggs either. I don’t eat sushi twice a day either since Jeremy Previn and several others got mercury poison from doing so. Lastly, I don’t eat sprouts as they are at a huge risk for giving one E-coli poisoning.

    • In at least one case (Costco sold beef products, IIRC), this solution would not work because the grocery chain had pricked the surface of the meat they were selling, allowing the E coli to move from the surface to the interior of the product. The consumer could cook the steak or roast they bought as suggested by most chefs (internal temperatures of 140-150 Fahrenheit) and still be at risk (E coli isn’t completely killed until the food reaches ~160). No matter how the damage-CONtrol experts spin it, this is a tainted meat issue and not a personal hygeine issue.

      • I’m not suggesting there isn’t a problem with XL foods – but mass produced food has risks that will never be eliminated- and consumers need to mitigate these risks as well. Some vigilance is required by the consumer.

        Yes, I was not aware of the mechanized tenderizing process until this story broke. Perhaps this process will subsequently be eliminated, or only undertaken if the meat is fully irradiated.

  2. Not to defend the way the meat industry is set up [ i think i'll definitely be ordering in my organic Buffalo and try to score some local moose this winter, after all this, that's for sure] but it is remarkable just how few people get seriously ill, when you think about it. Even going to the local restaurant is a gamble – you just don’t know who washed their hands or prepped properly? Still, you do still have a vast choice available in that case; this one, not so much. My kid is leaning toward vegetarianism…can’t say i blame her really.

    • Eh, you are more likely to get e-coli from your vegetables than from your beef, especially if its organic. After all, if you can’t use artificial fertilizer then you have to get your fertilizer from animal waste… who has the biggest source of animal waste? Hog Barns and Feed lots, where thousands of animals are fed and defecate in a very small area. That’s how you get groundwater contamination of e-coli as well.

      I would also be careful about getting meat from smaller producers as well. How was it butchered? Were the facilities or meat inspected? For example,s were there parasites like scabies in the stock and did they treat them with used oil? That’s not to say you shouldn’t buy from small producers. In fact I’d encourage it, but organic doesn’t necessarily mean safe.

  3. But if the industry has a problem that should be corrected by regulatory oversight, then it IS Ritz’s problem.

  4. he should resign as well as the current CFIA leadership – disgusting leadership. the entire dept should then be gutted and handed over to Health Canada and not the Agriculture dept.

    • Agreed that he should resign – only reason being his incompetent handling of the PR aspects of this issue. As for CFIA’s accountability … no way do I feel they are responsible for this fiasco. They serve the Minister and they operate in an environment that makes it impossible to effectively fulfill their mandate. Ministers of Ag (Ritz and ALL his predecessors) put the emphasis on promoting the Ag Sector. Ag Canada is an effective body for promoting the sector. BUT (and this is what most people don’t understand), they are terrible in fulfilling their regulatory and compliance role. That should be no surprise to anyone – how can a promoter be a good cop?

  5. The joys of unbridled centralization of the food supply. We raise a stink over beef but how many recalls have major grocery chains had over salads and the like this year alone. Bean sprouts anyone?
    We don’t need to have everyone growing and processing their own food but maybe it would be wise to question leaving so much, in so few hands.

  6. I’m not sure if having it in many hands is necessarily better. After all, the biggest source of food poisoning of the Canadian public is community potluck dinners, because every kitchen has different standards of sanitation, and Ms. McGreary thinks nothing of having 30 cats crawling around her kitchen.

    So I’d have to see some data of how many people died from tainted meat related illnesses in recent years compared to when the meat industry was decentralized. I have a feeling we are just more sensitive now to news about tainted meat, whereas before we didn’t really worry about it unless it directly affected us.

    • Okay, I seem to have ruffled a few feathers with what I am saying, but nobody is refuting me, just down-voting.

      So what is the data for deaths by tainted meat related illnesses between now and in the 50′s-70′s. Do we have a higher rate of death from food-borne illnesses today than 40 years ago? I don’t have a stake in this argument, so I’m happy to have my doubts about food safety disproved and join you in demanding a change to our food processing and distribution methods for reasons of public safety.

      • First, not all food poisoning is e.coli. And while unpleasant, it rarely kills people, unlike e.coli. So I’m betting some people are probably down-voting you for trying to draw that false-equivalency.

        Second, I’m pretty sure some people are down-voting you because you’ve produced an assertion that’s counter-intuitive and provided nothing to back it up. If you have some stats showing community potluck dinners are the largest source of food poisoning, that’d be interesting to see.

        Third, your asking for evidence for your own claim. Get off your ass and find it yourself, don’t rely on us or berate us for not being willing to go do your work for you.

        • Ever heard of children getting Salmonella Meningitis or Typhoid Fever which is caused by Salmonelli Typhi? Also, while 53 people died in May/June 2011 from sprouts with E-coli poisoning, Germany which tracks cases of E-coli typically gets 800-1200 cases of E-coli food poisoning per year, most of the them are mild. Given that one of the biggest killers of people worldwide is diarrhea due to bacteria in contaminated water and food, I wouldn’t say that these contaminants rarely kill. Perhaps not in OUR part of the world but certainly in the underdeveloped nations where treatments are not readily available.

          • When Ritz and the CFIA are working in underdeveloped nations where treatements are not readily available, you’ll have something approaching appoint.

            Until then, I guess you’re pointless.

          • Salmonella Meningitis happens in developed countries. Also, people get Hepatitis A from food handlers in restaurants who don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom. That happens here, in your province of Alberta. The point is that many bacterial food contagions are very dangerous to children, the elderly and people with immune deficiences and they occur here in North America. ….Hmmm…..what was that you said to Yanni…about research and his ass….right back at ya!

  7. Émile Zola – “Civilization will not attain to its perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest.”

  8. XL Foods should be shut down forever. Corporate Greed, bad treatment of staff are just the beginning. Probably friends of the Conservatives … look into it!

    • They are two brothers from Westlock, Alberta. The Nillson brothers bought the plant from Tyson foods, an American corporation in 2005. The Nillsons are ranchers and owners of several auction marts in Alberta. You close them down, you are left with Cargill Foods, a giant American owned processor…..no Canadian owned processing plants in Canada.

    • Yeah, definitely a bad idea. It’s scary how vertical that market is. And they make use of temporary foreign workers, they can pay them 15% less, and these workers don’t ever complain.

      • The workers at XL are from Africa. There is no indication that they are temporary workers. Do you have a source for that?

  9. Fast Food Nation was an excellent book. There were alos two movies made — “Fast Food Nation” and a sequel “Food Inc.”

    The movie Fast Food Nation is fictionalized account. What really surprised me was that it starred Bruce Willis, Kris Kristofferson, and Avril Lavigine, though there is no hint of that in the opening credits. Hey isn’t that…

    Food Inc. is more of a documentary but it is also excellent. You don’t stand in the way of the big food processors; they tell you how to run your farm or they run you out of business.

    If you can watch either movie, it will be worth it. Really now, how many other ‘Die Hard” movies have you watched more than once? Isn’t it ironic?

  10. When did accountability and responsibility disappear? Ritz was given the responsibility and has shown no common sense or judgement. We need leaders that can lead. Is it too much to ask to have better leadership put in place? The people of Canada deserve better. We don’t need someone, who clearly is overwhelmed by a problem, and does not know how to lead.
    Put accountability and safety back into the meat industry but overhauling the system. But show us a new MP who may know what they are doing and may care about the problem.

    • I agree with you, absolutely, but need to point out that people died in the listeriosis crisis a few years ago. Ritz also was in charge of that, and made jokes: yet he remained in that porfolio, and of course, was voted in again by his constituents. Why do we have such short memories? Why don’t we care more about our food systems? I reiterate: PEOPLE DIED ON HIS WATCH, YET IT IS STILL HIS WATCH!

  11. The blame for this lies with governments who so heavily over-regulated small processors out of business, that only the mega-processors were left standing. Every year in Alberta we lose a handful of small meat processors. To a man they will blame the regulators who slowly but surely squeezed them out of business. Regulations are only as good as the motivation of the people behind them. Who is more likely to make sure the meat he sells is safe, the small business owner or the minimally paid slaughter house worker and the federal meat inspector with no stake in the process?

  12. The “coach” should check out his team. A trade is in order for Ashfield and Ritz.

  13. I am not sure Martin that your logic is sound. In the summer 2007, a relatively small processing plant at Pridis, Alberta called “Ranchers Beef” was responsible for sending E-coli tainted ground beef to the US….namely to Topps Market. 40 people fell ill and 23 people were hospitalized. The US closed the border to products for this plant but it had already closed its doors. It looks like the only way to stop the E-coli tainting at the processing level would be to either vaccinate all the cattle against the E-coli or irradiate the meat. Then we only have to worry about food handlers post processing.

  14. Absolutely, this E.coli outbreak is a symptom of the problem: slaughtering by the masses. I don’t support Ritz, or how he handled this issue, but Canadians need to think critically about this issue. Do you know how your beef is being slaughtered? Don’t be convinced that this is a sanitization and maintenance issue, E.coli doesn’t thrive on stainless steel. It thrives on the excrement of cows.

  15. I had only heard about the meat contamination after purchasing ground beef at IGA. I returned it. Then had a day out with the kids at McDonald’s for a treat (we go only twice a year). Usually I like my beef trio. And this time opted for the chicken sandwich (more expensive). I love beef. But now, I’m too scared to even eat anything that contains beef, like in restaurants…. I sometimes give my kids beef-filled pasta for their lunches…. now I don’t think I will…. it’s hard getting them to eat veggies. And then I wonder if they’re contaminated sometimes…let alone have pesticides…. What do I do? What do we do?

  16. Lets face it the government can make the laws,rules and regulations but it is the responsibility of the food outlet to follow them. No government in the world can supervise every process 24-7-365

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