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Celebrating World Animal Month by Learning Lessons from XL Beef Recall

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Much has been written about who should be held accountable for the recent E. coli outbreak from contaminated beef products that has seriously sickened people from Newfoundland to British Columbia. Everyone and everything from the Minister of Agriculture, to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, plant inspectors and the XL beef plant's protocols have all come under fire for E. coli reaching supermarket shelves.

Oddly, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq has received very little scrutiny for the largest beef recall in Canadian history--and therein lies much of the problem. Although Health Canada is responsible for setting food safety standards, it is the CFIA that ultimately enforces these standards. While it would seem logical for this government body, which is responsible for ensuring the safety of the Canadian food supply, to report to the Health Minister, this is not the case. The CFIA reports to the Minister of Agriculture, the same Minister responsible for promoting Canadian agriculture domestically and around the world. Holding such competing responsibilities in the same industry creates a startling conflict of interest for the Department of Agriculture and Agri-food, and one that XL plant's workers have themselves drawn attention to in the wake of the recall.

The agribusiness industry often cuts corners to put profit and efficiency ahead of animal welfare, the environment, and other concerns, and this has led to farming practices further away from the traditional idea of 'Old MacDonald's Farm.' Today, industrial farming practices account for most of the food that appears on our supermarket shelves, and these practices raise a host of concerns. Animals are often crammed into cages so small they can barely move, they are submitted to painful dehorning and they are bred to grow ever bigger and faster, before being transported--sometimes for several days in extreme temperatures--to slaughter. Unsurprisingly, treating animals this way has serious consequences on food safety. For the most part, Canadian cattle arrive at slaughter plants from feedlots--facilities that crowd cattle into penned enclosures where they are fed an unnatural diet of grains to promote rapid growth. Cattle naturally eat grass, and because of the changes it causes in their digestive systems, feeding cows primary diet of corn, soy and other grains may increase their risk of carrying strains of E. coli.

Handing the responsibility for food safety back to Health Canada--which held many of these duties prior to CFIA's creation in 1997--would not only remove an inherent contradiction from the current system, making that change would allow CFIA to focus on improving the welfare of animals while they are being transported and at the slaughter plant. It is undeniable that urgent action is needed to address the extreme stress that cattle suffer during transport and slaughter in this country. Federal regulations allow Canadian cattle to be transported for up to 52 hours without access to food, water or rest, and enforcement of even these lax standards is far from consistent.

Since 2004, the XL plant has gone from slaughtering 2,400 cows per day to 4,000. It should be no surprise that many workers have been decrying the massive increase in production line speed. As they noted, when inspectors are forced to choose between ensuring food safety and ensuring productivity, the latter wins out. Not only does speeding up production lines have terrible consequences for animal welfare, such as failing to properly stun animals before slaughter, it may also have serious consequences for food safety in this country.

If we have learned anything over the past month, let it be this: inspectors --and a Government Department--who make the choice between ensuring animals are humanely treated and meeting the bottom line will never be able to focus on doing both. For all our sakes, let's stop asking them to.