Editorial: Meat packing concentration leads to problems

When Canadians flocked to their grocery stores to stock up for the pandemic lockdown, most weren’t filling their carts with plant-based proteins.

It was the meat counters that cleared out along with the toilet paper shelves, baking ingredients, and with other basics considered necessities.

While more Canadians have been experimenting with these plant-based proteins, most continue to include at least some meat on their menu.

It’s safe to say that most of us prefer not to think about the part between animals living on the farm and their presence on our plates, aside from demanding assurances that they don’t unduly suffer.

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However, the COVID-19 crisis has shone a spotlight into the dark shadows that now can’t be ignored in the meat-processing sector.

Industry concentration in search of economies of scale means that upwards of 85 per cent of Canada’s beef comes from three processing plants owned by two non-Canadian companies. Seventy per cent of the country’s beef supply comes from two plants in Alberta most affected by COVID-19 casualties.

The National Farmers Union has been flagging packer concentration as a concern for years. In a recent report the organization noted that in 1988, there were 119 federally inspected beef-packing plants in Canada, all Canadian owned. It blames the continued focus on increasing export volumes for the decline in local processing.

“The pursuit of maximum exports has resulted in a corporate beef sector that extracts all it can from workers, farmers, taxpayers, consumers and agricultural ecosystems,” it says.

Nearly half of the workers in the Cargill-owned Alberta plant have tested positive to COVID-19, which points to a stunning failure by its management and public health officials to protect the health and safety of workers.

It’s also become clear in the aftermath that this travesty is about more than plant safety. These plants rely heavily on imported workers who routinely share accommodation and transportation and for whom it was impossible to self-isolate.

Closing the plants to bring the situation under control has pushed back to the farm and feedlots where upwards of 130,000 head of cattle are on hold, increasing feeding costs and depressing market prices.

Similarly, pork processors have been temporarily closed forcing hog producers to euthanize young animals because they have run out of room in their barns.

The repercussions have rippled up through the supply chain, creating shortages and higher prices for consumers, and now, for taxpayers.

Governments have stepped up to provide $100 million in assistance to cattle and pork producers, along with $77.5 million to the Canadian meat-packing companies to make their plants safer. More will likely be necessary.

It all leaves a bad taste that threatens to drive consumers away.

Coincidentally, sales of plant-based burgers, which were soaring already, have picked up the pace even more due to meat shortages in the U.S., the Washington-based online news agency The Hill is reporting.

This is cause for celebration among anti-meat campaigners (as well as for shareholders in these new ventures). Nothing would please them more than to see consumers turn their backs on meat products for good, citing everything from global warming to environmental to welfare to health issues as reasons.

COVID-19 has shown us rapid behavioural change is possible, so it’s conceivable to see this as a turning point in our psyche around consuming animal products.

Plant-based proteins have their merits but they are not a simple nutritional substitute for meat.

As for the land, some protein plants such as legumes have the remarkable ability to produce their own nitrogen. However, while some plants are more efficient than others at using available phosphorus, there are none so far that can produce it.

The best we can do to conserve essential but finite resources like phosphorus is to recycle them. Even the plants used to make Beyond Meat burgers need phosphorus to grow.

Well-managed livestock systems — with emphasis on well managed — are important nutrient recyclers. As well, turning forages into protein through cattle is often done on land that is otherwise unsuitable for growing crops.

Canadians are right to demand improvements to this country’s meat-supply chain. But abandoning it altogether would leave us even more vulnerable to future food shortages.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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