IT IS TIME FOR A NATIONAL DEBATE ON THE FOOD INDUSTRY

By Neil Peacock

The XL Foods recall has really got people talking about the food system all across Canada. Concern for the safety of our food unites us whether we are urban or rural, farmers or consumers, regardless of which part of the country we live in. Some people are saying we need  a national debate on the food industry,  and I agree wholeheartedly with that statement.

The National Farmers Union released a detailed report in November 2008 called The Farm Crisis and the Cattle Sector: Towards a New Analysis and a New Solution describing the concentration of the livestock sector by multinationals, and the consequences for farmers and consumers. The report is on the NFU website. The NFU showed a detailed history of the cattle industry in Canada and outlined 16 solutions to the situation facing cattle farmers and the Canadian public at large.

As a cattleman myself, I am proud to say my cattle carry the same brand as did my grandfather’s, so the cattle industry is nothing new to me. When the beef leaves my farm, it is safe for Canadians to eat. It is only after the cattle leave my farm that safety issues enter the food chain, yet I am punished financially for mismanagement by others.

We have a very concentrated food industry in Canada, not just in beef, but in all foods. According to the documentary Beef Inc., produced by the National Film board of Canada (and which I highly recommend), the vast majority of food products found on our store shelves are processed, packaged and/or distributed by just a very few large corporations in each sector and they then use the size of their market share to their own advantage. You can find out about the level of control exercised by very few companies in the beef sector in the NFU report previously mentioned. The parent company of XL Foods, the same company involved with the largest meat recall in Canadian history, also controls many of the western cattle auction markets where farmers sell their cattle, and the beef feedlots that purchase livestock from farmers. More and more of Canada’s farmers and consumers are trapped without meaningful choices in a market that is highly controlled by vertically integrated corporations on both ends of the food system.

The 2008 NFU cattle report also shows the relationship between the Canada US Free Trade Agreement and NAFTA in 1989 and 1994 respectively, and the catastrophic results those agreements have had on our food system today. If you look at the proposed agreement with the European Union (CETA ) that the federal government is aiming to close by the end of this year, Canadians should be even more concerned, as it is clearly not in the public interest.

The XL Foods contaminated beef recall, that has caused illness from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland, wasted millions of pounds of meat, and damaged the incomes of affected farmers and plant workers, is a real wake-up call. Clearly a public conversation on the direction of our food and agricultural policy and its purpose is needed and warranted. This discussion needs to include not just the so-called industry stakeholders, but all of the people of Canada who are the true industry stakeholders. It is the single most important issue facing us as a nation today. You may think oil, manufacturing and jobs are important, and rightly so, they are. They are, however, far less important than clean, safe food and water. If you don’t agree, try going 30 days without either and then let’s talk.

Gigantism, a result of increasing corporate consolidation, is clearly not in the interest of the public good or the public trust. Canadians must get involved and demand a look at and a restructuring of our food and agriculture system.

Neil Peacock is a National Farmers Union board member, and a cattleman who farms at Sexsmith, Alberta.