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Time To Rethink The Beef Business

We are encouraged by a growing consumer movement towards not only organic foods, but just as important, local foods.

Has anyone paid much attention to the NFU’s November 19, 2008 report on The Farm Crisis and the Cattle Sector? Among other things, the report reveals that average cattle prices are nearly half what they were between 1942 and 1989 (adjusted for inflation) and have actually been hovering close to Great Depression prices (adjusted for inflation) since 1989 while meat packers, since 1989, have become fewer, larger, and more efficient.

“…we see these half-price cattle despite much-touted efficiency gains in the retailing, feeding, and packing sectors.” Pg. 19 The Farm Crisis and the Cattle Sector report executive summary

If you haven’t seen the report, the executive summary is downloadable online at is well researched, presented, and easy to read. It includes 16 recommendations to “restructure and revive our thoroughly broken beef sector.”

First on the list of recommendations is to ban captive-supply contracts, a concept that was recently announced by President Obama and will be implemented by his administration as part of its rural agenda. According to Obama’s website, “when meat packers own livestock they can manipulate prices and discriminate against independent farmers.”


Packers distort and destroy markets through mergers, captive supply, and owning auction markets. Did you know there are cattle auction marts in Manitoba that are owned by meat-packing operators? Did you know 50 to 60 per cent of Alberta feedlot animals are owned or controlled by meat-packing operations? And did you know the Competition Bureau of Canada has recently approved the merger of XL Foods and Tyson Foods? This leaves just two companies holding 80 per cent of the meat-packing market share across Canada, the merged corporation and Cargill.

Is this what family farms and consumers need?

The Competition Bureau of Canada website says one of its jobs is to investigate cartels. What does that mean? The online definition reads: “A cartel is a formal or informal group of otherwise independent businesses whose concerted goal is to lessen or prevent competition among its participants. Typically, cartel members enter into an agreement or arrangement to engage in one or more anti-competitive activities, such as to fix prices, mutually allocate markets or customers, limit production or supply, rig bids, or to exclude other competitors from the market through the use of boycotts.”

Should Canadians care about this? We think so.


Recommendation No. .6 of the report proposes that food safety regulations be tailored to encourage local abattoirs and recommendation No. 12 is entitled “Focus on Local Food.”

While existing large packing plants are likely very efficient, it seems incredibly nonsensical to ship animals hundreds of miles for slaughter and then ship the beef hundreds of miles again to retail outlets in the name of efficiency. Why not encourage and support small abattoirs and local packing plants in rural communities, run by local business owners and co-operatives?

People need to be empowered to think outside the food system box, to support local initiatives, and to step away from shopping primarily for the lowest food price. Imagine what our grandparents and great-grandparents would think if they saw how meat is delivered to the table these days.

The NFU report supports the creation of “local food systems wherein farmers can supply their neighbours.” If this costs each one of us a little more in the short term, we should consider the difference as an investment into the future of our communities. Canadians would do well to look into the benefits of grass-finished and organic beef, bison, and other specialty livestock raised and processed in their own regions.


Buying local meat directly from local growers just makes sense for the long term, economically, environmentally, and relationally. As the report states, “a mega-scale, long-distance, foreign-controlled food system is the wrong one for Canada… Canada’s food policy, and by extension our policies on cattle raising and meat production, should as much as possible aim to deliver the local food outcomes Canadians want.”

We are encouraged by a growing consumer movement towards not only organic foods, but just as important, local foods. Also related, the concept of eating food in season is re-emerging. While our ancestors ate seasonally and locally because they mostly had no other choice, this generation is starting to eat locally and in season because it points strongly to sustainability in a market-driven world so focused on profit that costs to community, the created world, our health, and the security of future generations goes unaccounted.

Not only should families be thinking about sustainable, local, and seasonal purchases, but we would suggest municipal councils, schools, church groups, restaurants, and other business owners do so as well. We see vibrant and forward-thinking regions scattered throughout this nation and believe we’ll start to see more people take action on these and other issues of sustainable living.

Personally, we are grateful for a well-written report that we can sink our teeth into, chew on, and use to hone our thinking about the business of cattle stewardship.

Dean Hildebrand and his wife Tiina farm near Morden.

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