Questions are swirling over the recall of beef products across Canada, the biggest in the country's history. How many people will fall ill? How could such a large-scale contamination occur? Can we be sure about the safety of Canada's meat supply?
Amid the noise, one thing seems certain: Many Canadians are experiencing an acute case of meat insecurity.
The massive recall of products processed at XL Foods in Alberta brings into sharp focus a growing shift away from consumer complacency.
People are thinking twice about where meat comes from, its quality and how much they need in their diet. It might not spell the end of our carnivorous culture as we know it, but events like the XL Foods recall – combined with nagging questions about the sustainability, ethics and even the health benefits of eating meat – suggest a tipping point for a lot of consumers.
"There's a changing landscape when it comes to meat consumption," said John Cranfield, professor of agricultural economics in the department of food, agricultural and resource economics at the University of Guelph. "People are starting to have more of those conversations about food that, I think, get them thinking more about where their food comes from and why they consume what they do."
For many, those questions are prompting a change in shopping and eating habits.
"It gives me less confidence as a consumer," said Calgary resident Joshua Crough, a geographic information system analyst with the Calgary Board of Education.
After the listeriosis outbreak in 2008 (when 22 Canadians died after consuming tainted cold cuts), Crough decided he would no longer purchase factory-processed meat. The XL Foods recall has reinforced his choice.
"You have all this meat processed in the same factory. If anything gets on it, it's going to contaminate more food," Crough said. "I think nowadays, consumers have to make informed decisions and know more about where our food comes from."
Nadine Chappellaz, who lives in Winnipeg, worries about the large quantities of hamburger, steaks and other cuts she bought at deep discounts over the summer at a major grocery chain. Now, she says she intends to purchase her meat from area butchers who offer locally raised meat.
Buying from a farmer or local butcher shop doesn't guarantee safety, even if the beef is grass fed, the chickens are free range and the meat is 100-per-cent organic. Some smaller operations still rely on large-scale facilities at some point during processing. But a growing number of Canadians are drawn to the idea of knowing their food producers by name and relying on those that produce small amounts of high-quality products, even if they must pay a few dollars more.
In addition, Canadians are eating less beef – consumption has plummeted from 17.4 kilograms per person per year in the mid-1980s to about 12 kilograms in the past few years, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The total amount of meat protein consumed, however, has remained fairly stable, with people eating leaner meats like chicken more often.
"I personally hope people are starting to look at the monster that is the global food industry and sort of saying, I actually want to go completely back to basics," said Stephen Welch, store manager at the Ottawa-area Manotick Village Butcher, which specializes in local and ethically raised meat.
The shift for Sarah Rainsberger and her husband, who live in Summerside, PEI, came several years ago after hearing about a number of large food recalls and learning about factory farming.
"That sort of opened our eyes," she said. "We have one farmer that delivers all our beef and another farmer that delivers all our chicken and lamb. We've just been thrilled with it."
Ron Davidson, director of government and media relations at the Canadian Meat Council, said overall the country's meat supply is safe, adding that E. coli bacteria is killed as long as beef is cooked to the proper internal temperature.
The brewing backlash against mass-produced meat has been popularized by author and activist Michael Pollan along with documentaries such as Food, Inc. and the rise of campaigns such as Meatless Monday, which asks participants to forgo meat consumption one day a week. Reports about the environmental unsustainability of industrial-sized livestock farming operations and concerns about the adverse health effects of eating too much red meat add to the underlying concerns. A study published earlier this year by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found consuming as little as one serving a day of meat could increase serious health risks.
At the same time, Canadian cities are seeing a surge of gourmet burger and barbeque restaurants and boutique butcher shops that promote their products as local, ethical and sustainable.
The problem is those products remain largely out of reach to those who can't afford them or don't live in those areas. It's what Cranfield calls "elite meats." Most Canadians who consume beef, chicken, pork or other meats remain dependent on industrial operations, like the one involved in the current beef recall.
"If there's only a small fraction of the population who can afford it … it won't change the industry," Cranfield said. "It will allow some people to feel better about their consumption."