Ever since the recall of beef from Alberta's XL Foods began in September, there's been a joke going around some neighbourhood butcher shops that sell local meat. "Is that from Alberta?" customers ask with a smirk.
At The Better Butcher in Calgary, however, where they specialize in "naturally raised meat" from local farms, no one has been kidding around. Owner Randy Hnatuk says they've seen a 20-per-cent rise in business from people looking for an alternative to mass-produced meat and the system responsible for the E. coli 0157 outbreak that sickened 18 people.
Everywhere else, those who chide their butchers are only half joking because there is a prevalent belief that meat in the local food system is safer than what is offered at the supermarket. I thought this too, long before the XL Foods recall, and while researching my book, Locavore, about the local food movement's alternatives to the industrial food system in Canada, I became more familiar with the differences. I met farmers across Canada who are breaking from the status quo and raising fewer animals, typically letting them graze on pasture. They tend to slaughter their animals in smaller abattoirs, and then sell the meat through a growing network of independent butchers or directly to consumers. I am willing to pay more for locally-raised meat because it's better for the environment, supports local economies. It's also is safer from the nasty bugs of industrial food such as E. coli 0157 and antibiotic-resistant pathogens – or so I thought. The other day, as I was preparing grass-fed beef for dinner, I took a second look at what I was cooking. I realized I had assumed that this beef was safer – but was it really?
It turns out that buying a safer meat is more complicated than simply choosing local, organic, naturally raised or grass-fed. In fact, none of these labels is guaranteed to be safer.
Whether your steak comes from a cow that was raised on a feedlot and slaughtered in a large abattoir, or from an animal that ranged on grass and was given a nice pat by its farmer before meeting its end, some research indicates that the chance of the meat bringing a pathogen into your home is equal.
"Bacteria really don't care about our politics," said Douglas Powell, a food scientist at Kansas State University who has been studying E. coli 0157 for two decades. "There are risks in all food systems." As a study out of Purdue University that compared regular beef to grass-fed concludes, "there are no clear food safety advantages to grass-fed beef products over conventional beef products."
All cows can potentially carry toxic E. coli – as can wild deer and even raccoon. Meat is most likely to be contaminated when the carcass is gutted; animal hides can carry, and spread, the bacteria.
But there are other pathogens we need to worry about, too. When looking for a safer product, we also should be thinking about antibiotic resistance. Much of our poultry, for instance, is given a steady diet of drugs to hasten growth and keep the birds healthy in crowded living quarters; fewer fowl are raised free from antibiotics.
"There is a difference in these products," said Dr. Lance Price, a professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University, who studies the impact of antibiotics on food animals. Researchers have found far fewer antibiotic-resistant bacteria on birds raised on farms without the drugs. "If you look on the farm, you get a stark difference between animals raised without antibiotics."
But antibiotic-free meat is not guaranteed to be free of contamination. "The difference gets washed out as they move through retail because of cross contamination," he added. Even if the farmer raises animals free from antibiotics, when she goes to the same abattoir that a less scrupulous person also uses, the benefits can be erased.
Buying safer meat isn't simply about choosing the right kind, not because it doesn't matter how it is raised, but because of cross contamination in the system.
For an animal product to be legal for sale in Canada, it has to be slaughtered at a certified facility. This could be a federally certified abattoir, such as XL Foods, or a small provincial plant. Each province has different rules, but federal slaughterhouses are generally large and process thousands of animals a day. The provincial abattoirs tend to be smaller and typically cater to small-scale farmers.
In any slaughterhouse, a contaminated piece of meat can taint other food, said Amy Proulx, a former federal meat inspector who now runs the culinary innovation and food technology program at Niagara College in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. "If you want to prevent bringing it into your home, go vegetarian," she said. (Then again, vegetables can carry pathogens like listeria or salmonella.)
Even though there are rules to keep all abattoirs clean and safe, no matter their size, the systems can fail. That means that if the antibiotic-free meat you buy is slaughtered in the same facility as animals that are raised conventionally, contamination by antibiotic-resistant bacteria is possible – even likely. Conversely, studies by Price and others have found fewer antibiotic-resistant bacteria on chicken raised without antibiotics that is slaughtered and sold separately.
It would make sense then that if we could keep these two kinds of meats separate, we could have a safer option when it comes to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It's difficult, however, for most consumers to buy meat from a slaughterhouse that only processes animals raised alternatively. British Columbia is the only province that tracks organic certification for abattoirs.
To call meat "organic," you must have organic certification, as enforced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. But labels such as "local," "naturally raised" and "grass fed" can mean whatever the producer wants them to mean. In one case Price found, a company was calling its pork "antibiotic free" because it weaned the hogs off drugs for a period of time before they were butchered. The animals weren't truly free from the medication, as advertised.
"Almost all food decisions are faith-based," Powell said. "That's why people say things like 'I trust my farmer.' Faith-based food systems have to go." He wants companies to provide the consumer with food safety data.
While meat in Canada is sold with a number that identifies the last facility that handled it, the law doesn't require producers to give consumers the information they need to trace its origins, or even to see how many facilities the meat passes through. "In some cases, it crosses hands multiple times," said Proulx. And the more handling, the more potential for cross-contamination, she said. For example, an independent butcher could supply their meat from a middleman who buys it from a federal plant such as XL Foods and wouldn't have to tell you.
Statistics Canada data show that last year we imported more than $200-million worth of chicken parts and organs from the United States and just under $40-million from Brazil. But there is no way for the consumer to know that their dinner has travelled this far.
"That's one reason to go back to the local system," said Proulx, who sources a lot of her meat from local butchers. She suggests that when choosing meat, you shouldn't let price be your guide. "Cheap meat comes with shortcuts," she said.
As for me, I'll continue to buy meat raised without antibiotics, by farmers practising low-impact agriculture. I will also, however, buy a tip-sensitive meat thermometer. I'd rather be safe than sorry.
Sarah Elton's new book Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet will be published in the spring.