In spring of 2003, in the midst of Alberta’s mad cow crisis, I found myself unexpectedly dining with the Japanese consul-general. Japan had just closed its borders to imports of Canadian beef because of bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Alberta’s then-premier, Ralph Klein, had responded with a sneering comment about the intelligence of the “Japanese race”—and I’d written a column taking Klein to task. Shortly thereafter I received a last-minute invitation, asking me and my husband to a dinner party at the consulate.
We hired a babysitter, dug deep in the closet for dress-up clothes and headed to the banquet. When we arrived, the consul-general buttonholed me. During Japan’s BSE crisis, he told me, the Japanese refused to eat beef. But here in Alberta, people were eating more beef than ever, defiantly. Why on earth, he wanted to know, were Albertans behaving this way?
Intense concentration leaves our beef industry at risk if something goes awry at one plant. Let alone two. That’s where COVID laid bare our weakness.
I started to explain that we were reasonably sure no infected cows had entered the food chain. But then I had a wee epiphany. I told the diplomat we were eating beef out of perverse patriotic pride. “Alberta Beef” wasn’t just a brand. It was part of our identity. Part of the romance of our open-range cowboy mythology. Part of our inchoate sense of Alberta exceptionalism.
Flash forward to the spring of 2020 and a contagion of a different sort. COVID-19. This time, it wasn’t the cows who were sick. It was the humans responsible for slaughtering and packing them who fell ill, along with the meat inspectors responsible for ensuring the safety of our food. The pandemic exposed another kind of vulnerability in our food chain.
According to Agriculture Canada, 84 per cent of beef slaughter in Canada is done by just two companies: Brazilian-owned JBS, which operates a packing plant in Brooks, and American-owned Cargill, which has a huge plant in High River (and a smaller one in Guelph, Ontario). Add in Harmony, a smaller Canadian-owned plant in Balzac, and three companies alone account for 91 per cent of beef processed in Canada.
It’s a highly efficient system for cattle producers and feedlot operators. But such intense concentration leaves Canada’s beef industry at risk if something goes awry at one plant. Let alone two. And that’s where COVID laid bare our strategic weakness.
In High River this spring more than 920 Cargill employees and 18 federal health inspectors were infected with COVID-19. They in turn infected others. At least 1,500 cases have been linked to that plant, including three fatalities. The JBS plant saw another 650 cases, with one fatality. Brooks, population 14,000, ended up with 1,095 COVID cases overall, almost all linked to the packing plant. A smaller outbreak affected about three-dozen people at the Harmony plant.
The human costs were horrific: thousands were infected, many of them economically vulnerable new immigrants who do physically and emotionally taxing labour.
There were financial costs too. Cargill closed for two weeks. JBS slowed production. That created a backlog of 167,000 cows awaiting slaughter. Agriculture Canada says it will take until late autumn to process them all. But cows aren’t widgets. They can’t just be warehoused while we fix the supply chain. They have to be fed and tended and kept healthy. Autumn is when most cattle normally arrive for slaughter, which could compound any bottleneck. As long we have intense corporate concentration, the resiliency of our marquee beef industry remains in peril.
As we brace for a predicted second COVID wave, we need the federal and provincial governments to ensure we can slaughter cows humanely, safely and reliably, while protecting the health and rights of workers. Longer term, we must reassess the intensely industrial way we process the beef we eat and export—and reassess our reliance on a handful of packing plants.
There won’t be simple answers. A cautionary tale:
In 2005, as the BSE crisis dragged on, local farmers and ranchers tried to build a mid-sized slaughterhouse near Stony Plain. They planned a $40-million operation, with capacity to process 800 cattle a day. They got millions from the Klein government. But the plant never opened. In 2008 the Stelmach government sued. The court ordered the owners to pay the province $2.5-million. But the government, an unsecured creditor, never saw a penny. Indeed, it paid another $12-million to buy the empty shell of a building, money that went to the company’s secured creditors. The whole bungled affair cost Albertans $14.5-million, with nary a steak to show for it.
I’d call that a hard lesson learned—if I weren’t sure most people had already forgotten it. So no. There are no simple fixes to add competition and capacity to the system, nor to make plants safer, healthier, more humane work environments. But if we want to maintain our pride on our Alberta beef, we need to face some very hard questions indeed about what happens on the trip between the ranch and the barbecue.
Paula Simons is an independent Senator, a former columnist for the Edmonton Journal and a long-time Albertan.