It wasn’t farmers who screwed up at the XL Foods plant, but they’re the ones paying the price.
That was the view of farmers attending the recent Keystone Agricultural Producers’ General Council meeting.
“We feel it’s the producers who are paying for someone else’s mistakes along the way,” said Minto farmer Bill Campbell.
KAP passed a resolution demanding Ottawa “take more responsibility for on-site inspections of livestock-processing plants.”
In moving the resolution, Plumas farmer Lorne Rossnagel said Campbell’s comment said it all.
“Producers are pretty much fed right up with these guys making quick decisions and as producers we have to pay for it financially,” said Rossnagel.
The XL Foods plant at Brooks, Alta., which was slaughtering 4,500 to 5,000 head of cattle a day, was shut down Sept. 27 because of E. coli contamination that sickened 17 people. The closure put a damper on cattle sales and prices, and raised fears that some consumers may shun beef because of food safety concerns. Slaughter resumed Oct. 29, but officials haven’t said when meat from the plant can be sold.
Farmers have done all they can to improve food safety, including tagging animals for traceability, Campbell said. Government has to do its part, including ensuring the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is doing a proper job, he said.
“I think this leads to the fact of the government’s responsibility in the CFIA downsizing and trying to get by with less people to monitor the food safety,” he said.
CFIA staffing levels have become a political football in Ottawa — with Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz repeatedly saying they’ve been increased, but the union representing CFIA inspectors insisting that’s not so.
KAP members also expressed concerns about the high volumes and increased line speeds that have become standard at modern slaughter plants, and how that affects CFIA meat inspection.
“They just don’t have the people to keep up with what happens and there’s a lot of pressure to keep that line moving,” Campbell said. “There are a lot of things happening here and I think there needs to be some accountability on somebody’s part. I guess it’s the CFIA and the government of Canada that should be held accountable for what has happened at this plant, not producers.”
In other business, KAP tabled a resolution to lobby the federal and provincial governments for the construction of at least one federally inspected meat-processing plant in each province with major livestock production.
Farm safety costs were also discussed, with Gary Sloik, manager of Keystone Potato Producers, warning that safety-related costs being imposed by the Manitoba government are making farmers uncompetitive.
“If our competitors don’t have the same social costs, governments can’t expect us to keep employing people,” he said.
Potato growers have done a lot to make work safer for their employees, but if an employee “doesn’t listen and gets hurt,” the farmer can be fined $70,000, Sloik said.
“And that’s more than the profits a lot of years,” he said. “So we’re just driving people out of business.”
KAP president Doug Chorney agreed safety and other regulations, as well as increasing wages, are making it harder for horticultural producers to operate.
“It’s a countrywide problem,” Chorney said. “Our cost of production is just going up with no connection to what the market is paying for the product.”
However, on-farm safety is important, Chorney said.
“I really get a sense they (government officials) want to see farm safety improve and if we don’t work hard at it ourselves they’ll probably be making it happen,” he told the meeting.
“We’re working hard on this and my advice going forward is keep both eyes on that issue.”