Editorial — The food chain has changed dramatically

Good health is far more important than low prices at the supermarket.

The massive and unprecedented recall of beef that emerged from a Brooks, Alberta processing plant should cause people to pause and think about the food chain, and how demands for low consumer prices may have a long-term effect that goes far beyond this recall.

The way that meat goes from farm to the table has changed dramatically in the past 50 years. There used to be many more slaughterhouses or killing plants than there are today. They were smaller and, by today’s standards, pretty primitive.

There were several in B.C., including what was once called Pacific Meats and later Intercontinental Packers, in South Vancouver. There were also many small slaughterhouses, including Borsato’s in Langley and others.

B.C. farmers and ranchers produce a large supply of cattle for the meat market each year. But for the most part, they are now shipped off to huge feed lots on the Prairies for a final fattening up before being butchered. A few farmers and ranchers raise some cattle to full size and sell meat to customers or specialty butcher shops directly. In virtually all cases, this meat is more expensive — but it comes with the assurance that the final consumer knows just where the meat originated and how it has been handled.

Almost every single large grocery retailer buys beef from a handful of huge plants, such as the Brooks facility. It has been estimated that up to 40 per cent of the beef sold in B.C. comes from that plant. That’s why the recall list is such a long one.

Years ago, the much-loved Woodward’s chain used to have an annual grass-fed beef sale, from cattle on the Douglas Lake Ranch, owned by company president Chunky Woodward. It was a huge success.

Grocery chains today have to offer low prices to get customers in the door, and meat prices are among the most closely-watched.

Getting good value for your dollar has never been more important. But as details about the recall emerge, it seems clear that the volume of cattle moving through the Brooks plant and the sheer difficulty in keeping E.coli infections under control are major factors in this serious health issue.

And this is serious. It’s not just ground beef that has been affected, but steaks and roasts. These cuts have rarely been reported as being infection risks in the past.

It is vitally important to cook meat thoroughly, and instructions about how to properly do so are readily available. But it is also important to know where your meat comes from. A push for low prices and efficiencies isn’t a bad thing, but it should never be at the expense of good health. This is particularly true for those who are most susceptible to very serious and lifelong challenges if infected by E.coli.

Hopefully out of all this will come a demand by meat eaters for better information about the food they eat.