Local food adherents twist XL Foods recall to push their agenda

November 21, 2012

LETHBRIDEGE, AB, Nov. 21, 2012/ Troy Media/ – It’s no surprise that local food activists are using the recent XL Foods beef recall to push their agenda.

After all, the beef recall involving the Brooks, Alberta-based company has so far affected more than 2,000 products and is being called the largest beef recall in Canadian history. Seventeen people have so far been diagnosed with E. coli in connection to meat from the facility.

Local food activists, or locavores, believe food should be grown or produced in their local community or region. Local food is fresher, better-tasting and more nutritious, they maintain. They adhere to the ‘food miles’ notion that shipping food long distances increases greenhouse gases, so they avoid it. Yet there is no convincing evidence that local food is better tasting or more nutritious. We buy exported food because it is a better bang for our buck. Local food is often more costly.

In the age of efficient inter-modal container shipping, oftentimes growing things in better conditions elsewhere and shipping them over long distance emits fewer emissions than growing food domestically. Much more energy is used in food production than transportation, experts say. One such expert is geographer Dr. Pierre Desrochers, an associate professor at the University of Toronto. The Frontier Centre recently invited Desrochers to speak at an event in Calgary. He spoke about his new book The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet. Locavores insists local food is safer because it avoids modern, industrial food production.

On October 12th, David Fisman, an internist with an interest in infectious diseases and Sarah Elton, author of Locavore, published an op-ed in the Vancouver Sun in which they blame the XL Foods beef recall on industrial food production.

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‘There is another way to build a safer food system: shorten the supply chain. Or, in the words of the good food movement, go local,’ reads the piece.

Their reasoning? ‘Sure, local food can make you sick too, but a shorter supply chain means fewer opportunities for things to go wrong.’

What activists miss is the history of food production and how large scale food production has made our food supply chain much safer than in the past.

Desrochers, in his book, points out that advances in science and medicine have eradicated foodborne illnesses that were once widespread. Proper canning, pasteurization, refrigeration, water chlorination, sanitary packing, and food irradiation have made our food system the safest in human history. Local food activists romanticize the pastoral past but modern scientific advances eliminated food problems that were endemic in the past.

Most food borne illnesses requiring hospitalization or leading to fatalities don’t come from contaminated food in large food-producing facilities.

In Canada, it is estimated that there are 6.8 million cases of food-borne illnesses annually. A recent Conference Board of Canada study traces most of those illnesses to the food service industry, namely restaurants and households. The modern food system is quite safe, so there is no reason for unnecessary alarm or to argue exclusively for local, decentralized food.

Modern agriculture, in fact, has brought modern food safety protocols. Desrochers recalled a visit he made to a Maple Leaf plant after the Listeria outbreak and discovered how extensive the food safety protocols were. Thick safety protocols binders were regularly used at every step of the process. Most of these elaborate procedures are far beyond the means of the average local farmer producing for the local farmer’s market.

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There are economies of scale in food safety too.

Large, centralized operations, Desrochers notes, allow companies to hire staff that study and enact food safety protocols for a living, which would be impossible for smaller farming operations. So food safety is more likely compromised in smaller operations because they cannot cost-effectively assemble the food safety equipment and know-how that larger operations can.

The other advantage to large scale production is that large food firms are juicy targets if something goes wrong. Large firms such as Maple Leaf or JBS USA want to avoid food-borne illness outbreaks as they inevitably lead to litigation and declines in sales.

Desrochers finally points out the obvious example of places such as India or sub-Saharan Africa where food poisoning is much more common. Open-air local markets are everywhere and eating food, especially meat, is risky.

Obviously, the XL Food beef recall means we need to be more vigilant. But, the answer is not to blow an incident out of proportion or ignore advances in food safety brought about by large-scale food production. Let’s maintain some perspective.

Joseph Quesnel is a policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. www.fcpp.org

This column is FREE to use on your websites or in your publications. However, Troy Media, with a link to its web site, MUST be credited.

One Response to "Local food adherents twist XL Foods recall to push their agenda"

  1. dynamicG   November 21, 2012 at 5:23 pm

    There is plenty of clinical evidence showing higher nutritional content in foods harvested when they are fully ripe vs. unripe (which is common practice when foods travel long distances). There is also evidence showing a decline in nutrients post-harvest, which means the sooner food is consumed once it is removed from the plant, the higher the nutritional content. This body of evidence is growing, a simple google search will take you to a number of published clinical trials illustrating the results I mention.
    I don’t think anyone needs clinical evidence to show flavour is better when food is allowed to ripen before being eaten. Unless, of course one has only ever eaten imported tomatoes. Then perhaps, peer-reviewed evidence could prove helpful.