Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Unhealthy meat from an unhealthy industry

we all have reason to worry

[Note: since this post first came out there have been lots of interesting comments from readers, including a dialogue with Jude Capper, Phd., who defends the mainstream meat processing and feedlot industry with her research. Worth reading if you want to get to the heart of the questions surrounding the meat we eat.]

So what do E. coli outbreaks, Saskatchewan's plans to sell off the former PFRA pastures, and the recent letters to the editor of the federal minister of Agriculture, Gerry Ritz, all have in common? No, it's not that they will all make you sick in the stomach.

These three things are all signs that the Big Lies of our centralized and industrial approach to meat production are starting to wear thin. The lies? Here are some: 1. That the beef industry is serving the interests of small, local cattle producers who are doing so darn well they can afford all kinds of things, including a market price for the former community pastures. 2. That the current system, under which virtually all of Canada's cattle are slaughtered in massive facilities owned by an duopoly of the Nillson Bros. (they own XL Foods, producers of the recent E. coli) and Cargill, is working for both producers and consumers. 3. That it is possible to produce healthy beef products by taking animals fed for half a year in massive feedlots and then processing them in plants that handle as many as 4,500 head per day.

XL Foods and the Nillson Bros. have packing plants in the United States as well as feedlots, auction markets and cattle on feed. They are all about getting control of the entire supply chain from pasture to plate. No one should be surprised if we learn some day that they are the hidden backers behind an offer to purchase one or more of the pastures.
Ag Minister Ritz ponders his next assault on the truth

Meanwhile, Federal Minister Gerry Ritz, one of the main purveyors of official fiction about big agriculture in Canada, has nothing better to do than criticize Saskatchewan newspaper columnists who have the audacity to question agricultural policy. In his letter in today's Leader-Post, Ritz says that "because farmers expect us to work smarter with their tax dollars, we are winding down programs like community pastures and shelterbelts that have met their goals." Yep, I imagine he gets letters every day from farmers thanking him for cutting those programs.

But it is fun reading Ritz's letters to the editor, so here is another one worth a laugh or two. And a third where he takes a shot at Paul Hanley, Star-Phoenix columnist.


  1. When governments don't have the interests of the small producers at heart it's time to take a deep seat grab leather because we're in for a hell of a ride.

  2. I think you are making some unfair generalizations in your blog post to advance your cause regarding the pastures. Generalizations such as these negatively impact both large and small beef producers.

    Are you aware that the majority of Saskatchewan farms and ranchers are family owned and operated?

  3. Hi Steph. Thanks for joining the conversation. Yes, of course our farms and ranches are "family-owned". In the first place, I have every sympathy for smaller cattle producers, particularly the cow-calf operators. But the market is run by XL foods (Nillson Bros.) and Cargill, who are also "family owned" by the way, and they set the agenda and favour greater consolidation and economies of scale so that cattle operators now have to either get big or go home. It is scale that pushes out local cow-calf producers, that fosters the world of massive feedlots and E. coli, and leads to damaging land use practices on our native grasslands.

  4. Trevor,

    What do you define as a big cattle producer vs a small cattle producer?

    Could you expand on your linkage between a naturally occuring bacteria in the stomach of 80% of cattle and damage to native grasslands?

  5. Good questions, Steph. First, you are right that the phrase "small producer" is terribly vague. For me it is convenient shorthand for the scale of cattle production that is sustainable and healthy for human and natural communities. The smaller, cow-calf producers who have always tended their native range well fit into this category. "Family-owned operations" that run thousands of feeder cattle on seeded pasture to send them off for feedlot finishing, however, do not.

    As for E. coli occurring naturally in the gut of cattle--of course it does. It is in your gut too. But what STRAIN of E. coli is it and how do feedlot and slaughterhouse practices foster new and virulent strains?

    The strain found in XL foods is pretty new to cattle: E. coli 0157:H7. It is the meat industry’s practice of keeping cattle in feedlots and feeding them grain that is responsible for the heightened prevalence of E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria. When we feed cattle a lot of grain, their intestinal tracts more acidic, favouring the growth of pathogenic E. coli bacteria like this one.

    E. coli 0157:H7 was first isolated in the 1980s, but now found in the intestines of most feedlot cattle. The practice of feeding grain to cattle has created the perfect conditions for harmful microbes to come into being. (this material comes from

    The connection between new strains of E. coli and the divestment of the PFRA pastures?

    The same market, ideological and political forces (corporate greed, free trade agreements and other supports for industrial-scale agriculture) that are driving the consolidation of the meat industry and creating the petri dish for new pathogens are behind the Federal Government's decision to offload the PFRA pastures, and the provincial government's decision to sell them.

    Steph--just ask the men and women who are still trying to make a decent living raising a few cattle from their own cows. Ask them what they think of XL foods, ask them whether they eat meat from animals who live half of their lives in a feedlot. Most of these folks have the sense to only eat the animals they finish themselves for a few weeks. Some, wanting even healthier meat, will finish them on grass before slaughter.

    Here is some material from John Robbins on this topic(see:

    Traditionally, Robbins says, all beef was grassfed beef, but today most of what is commercially available is feedlot beef.

    "Why? It’s faster, and therefore more profitable. Seventy-five years ago, steers were 4 or 5 years old at slaughter. Today, they are 14 or 16 months. You can’t take a beef calf from a birth weight of 80 pounds to 1,200 pounds in a little more than a year on grass. It takes enormous quantities of corn, protein supplements, antibiotics and other drugs, including growth hormones.

    Switching a cow from grass to grain is so disturbing to the animal’s digestive system that it can kill the animal if not done gradually and if the animal is not continually fed antibiotics. These animals are designed to forage, but we make them eat grain, primarily corn, in order to make them as fat as possible as fast as possible."

  6. Most calves raised in SK end up in a feedlot at some point in their life. Yes producers usually finish a few animals at home for themselves. However these animals are generally blemished in some way and as result would be discounted at market.

    According to the research of Dr Jude Capper at Washington State modern beef production is more sustainable than grass fed.

    Most cattle in Canada are fed barley not corn!

  7. Trevor,

    Are you a vegetarian?

  8. I am a little confused at the lack of understanding between the industries. The TLE wants a hand in the land of the PFRA. Fine thats interesting but i will almost guarantee that the millions of dollars of oil and gas below surface is attractive. It is a tough business making money on just cattle and with a no break no drain rule , oil is the most viable revenue as a 2nd or 3rd part. If there was a No drill, and No pipeline easements on this ground would the story change? Where does the "Environmental" people stand on this question? And another question I have is how would all the smaller ranchers and family run large producers survive in a business that would not ever survive without the Capital and Interest in the feeder, finishing, slaughter, and marketing of millions of cattle year round. People would be out of jobs, markets, and not enough market capability. Telling the small and larger family producers that expanding or increasing cash flow in a free market will lead you to the "Bad Dark" world of Capitalism is to close to Socialism and Communism for me. Iam not against government regulation but government as your Landlord is a gamble. This land could be financed with respect and understanding by the Sask government to turn that Lease to deeded by way of a no break,no drain,and no drill. To the Patrons. Problem Solved. Clint Timmons

  9. Steph--Not Jude Capper!?! She has made a career for herself as an academic for hire arguing that industrial agriculture is better for the planet. The Union of Concerned Scientists and the USDA itself ( both declared that grass-fed is healthier for people and the environment. It's Capper against everyone else who studies the question of grass-fed vs. grain-fed. She has taken a page from the scientists who go from one speaking engagement to the next feeding industry and Fox News with enough smoke to de-bunk climate change.

    And, yes, in Canada, we use barley, but as events at XL have shown, it is just as capable of fostering this nasty new strain of E. coli.

  10. Ken-no, I eat meat and as a person who wants to see grassland ecology protected I know that grazing animals are vital in sustaining the health of the land. I do, however, try to minimize the amount of beef I eat from the mainstream beef production industry.

  11. Clint--that is a very astute and interesting analysis of the situation. You put your finger on a point that a lot of people are missing in the discussion. Resource development is definitely on the minds of everyone who wants to have some control over the pastures.

    You speculate that "This land could be financed with respect and understanding by the Sask government to turn that Lease to deeded by way of a no break,no drain,and no drill."

    That sounds ideal to me if I understand you correctly, but if there is one thing we have learned in the conservation community in recent years, it is that NO ONE can stop oil and gas when they want access to land. One way or another, any resources under the grass of the old PFRA pastures will be developed when the market conditions make it feasible. With that in mind, I would rather have the destruction monitored and minimized by either a publicly accountable alliance that includes grazing patrons and conservationists or by an improved set of government regulations. If the land is simply privatized with no-plough and no-drain easements, it won't matter if we call it socialist or capitalist but there will be little to protect the ecology from the depredations of the oil and gas industry. Thanks for the two cents.

  12. Trevor,

    Where are you sourcing your beef?

    What kind of inspections are required for farmgate beef or at provincially inspected plants compared to XL?

    Where do you think most local butcher shops source their beef?

  13. In my opinion when proper food handling and cooking is implemented. Beef is a safe, healthy and nutritious source of zinc, iron and protein and it doesn't matter if the animal was grain or grass fed!

    Food recalls happen in all food industries and I believe the XL recall case leaves a lot left to be desired from a public relations and timely response perspective.

    If we are not careful about how we react to this recall. We risk regulating our local farmers and ranchers out of business. This will leave us dependent on importing food from countries with lower standards for food safety and environmental protection.

  14. Hi Ken--I buy some but not all of my beef from friends who graze using Holistic Range Management principles and finish their animals entirely on grass. While we do not eat nearly as much beef as some people do each week, we do end up purchasing some from supermarkets. I am no expert in meat inspection, but health standards and inspection protocols are not the problem. The problem is feedlot, factory farming and the scale of our agriculture where we no longer have enough farmers and ranchers raising our food, nor enough local meat processing and marketing. When two or three facilities are providing 35 million Canadians with virtually all of their beef, the system has grown to a scale that is going to be offloading a lot of ecological and health problems to the wider community, externalizing the environmental costs of its increased "efficiency".

  15. Thanks Steph. I agree that beef is healthy in general, but can't agree that feedlot beef is as healthy as non-feedlot beef. The antibiotics and growth pharmeceuticals used in the mainstream industry are unhealthy for the animals, for us and for our waterways and ecosystems.

  16. Trevor-

    Interesting blog and comments, I'm interested to hear that my supposed "academic for hire" activities have reached Canada. I wond't bother to respond to your more egregious comments, but I find it interesting that your entire blog appears to be written in a rather "us against the big bad world" style, which effectively alienates the majority of the conventional cattle industry. If you'd ever heard any of my talks you would know that I believe that there is a place for every single cattle production system. However, I strongly believe that your divisive tactics that purport to promote the interests of a beleaguered small-scale grass-fed industry while insulting the management practices, nutrition and technologies used in conventional beef production are simply an attempt to gain market share for your product. By all means promote grass-fed beef based on its merits to those who wish to buy it, but to do so by claiming that the majority of the industry are producing unhealthy meat simply implies that perhaps you don't have as much faith in your product or your business acumen as you profess to have. I should point out that the article that Steph kindly linked to is in a peer-reviewed, scientific journal. I have no doubt that you will dismiss this a "big ag having a hand in publishing" or some such response, but if the science behind the grass-fed vs. corn-fed papers was flawed, let me assure you that it would have been picke dup during peer-review. To finish, I want to reiterate that there is a place for EVERY beef production system; there is no place for mismarketing.

    Jude Capper, PhD

  17. Jude--I was being flippant and the "academic for hire" comment is not really fair. I am sure you really believe in your work, so I apologize for being careless. I hope some of my readers will check out your website for themselves ( and see what they think. In fact, if you have a piece you want to send me that outlines your basic position on the beef industry as it is today, I will put it up as a guest post, with an intro just to explain that I am posting it in the interest of open dialogue and not because I support your position on the industry. For the record, I do not have a product to promote, nor any financial interest in grass-fed beef. And I agree that there is room for both grain-fed and grass-fed (I eat a bit of both, but not too much of either). Where we disagree I think is on scale and the assumptions made and the factors included and excluded in any study of the health, economic, social, and ecological effects of scaling up to the "efficiencies" of centralized, industrial meat production. I.e. which direct and opportunity costs are you ignoring or externalizing in your assessment of the current industry? And, are you considering the effects of the fact that under the current system, we are consuming more beef than ever (and more than is healthy for us), because the prices, relative to average consumer income, have been driven down to levels that favour high through-put systems and the growth agenda of the meat processing industry at the expense of this continent's grassland biome and the stewardship culture of the cow-calf rancher grazing on native grass sustainably?

    Anyway, I apologize again for being dismissive of your work and I am sincere about letting you do a guest post if you have something that would not take too much trouble for you to submit. Despite the tone I may lapse into here from time to time, I do believe in the value of public discourse on these questions.

    Thanks for taking the time to write.

  18. Please note, Jude Capper's blog is at

    I posted the url incorrectly in my response to her.

  19. Trevor,

    Where are you getting your information on beef consumption?

    The per capita consumption of beef in Canada has been declining for many years. See the attached AAFC study.

    In 2003 Canadians were consuming around 15kg of beef per capita. Compare this to Argentina that consumes 55kg per capita.

    Argentina's high rate of beef comsumption doesn't appear to be negatively impacted their health. I would say it is more lifestyle choices such as exercise and quantity/quality of the food people are consuming.

  20. Ken--the increase in beef consumption I am referring to occurred long before 1984 which is the baseline of the data on that study you refer to. By 1984, the factory farm model was well in place and we were all eating a lot of beef. I am old enough to remember the days when the average middle class family could not afford to have steak or roast very often. Many people eat beef daily now.

    Fifty or sixty years ago, before we figured out the industrial and pharmaceutical processes that have made beef into a meal we can afford every day, North Americans consumed less beef. I am not saying we should go back to some former golden age, but if consumers today had to get their beef in a marketplace that rewarded cattleman sufficiently so they could afford to stay in business while protecting local watersheds, maximizing carbon sequestration, biodiversity on their grazing land, and providing meat without the unnecessary drugs added, we'd have more local cattlemen, more local meat slaughter and processing facilities, healthier rural communities, and, yes, darn it all, people eating smaller amounts of healthier beef because the prices would reflect the realities of eating high on the food chain.

    It is important to note also that, as that study points out, Canada's recent drop in per capita beef consumption is in part a function of new kinds of meat becoming popular and of the immigration boom in the past twenty years. Many new Canadians, Asian people in particular, have not yet caught on to our wheat and beef diet.

  21. Below is a paragraph from the attached link.

    "Until recently, the beef industry had experienced twenty years of declining consumption. The market share for beef remained relatively stable from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s and peaked in 1976 at 52.4 percent (Purcell, 2002, 5).
    Since then, the market share for beef has declined, while pork and chicken have grown in popularity among consumers. In the paper Measures of Changes in Demand for Beef, Pork, and Chicken, 1975-2000, Purcell (2000) estimates that beefconsumption in the U.S. has declined by 42 percent during the last two decades. Declining consumption for beef is also apparent in Canada. From a peak
    annual consumption of around fifty kilograms per person in 1975, Canadian consumers now purchase only slightly more than twenty kilograms per capita."

    According to this paper it doesn't appear that there has been a large spike in beef consumption associated with industrial and pharmaceutical processes as you suggested.

  22. Trevor,

    You back peddled so quick on your comments towards Jude's research that you could play defensive back for the Riders!

  23. Ken--most of that is about changes in market share, the percentage of beef consumed relative to other meats. Your quote does however say there was a peak in beef consumption in 1975 and a decline since then. That sounds about right to me--because of what has happened in pork and poultry and the effects of immigration. What we are missing in our discussion though is a figure of per capita beef consumption comparing that 1975 peak to say 1945, before the advent of modern industrialized meat production. Even then I am not sure about the dates, because the shift to modern meat production did not happen overnight. All I am saying is that grain-based, factory meat farming of all kinds--beef, poultry, and pork--has increased overall meat production and consumption (remember we are not even talking about export here). This in fact is the industry defenders' primary bragging point. Big Ag produces more food at a lower per unit cost. But what are the other very real costs--to human health, rural community, and the natural ecosystems we all depend on? Are they included in the studies people use to justify factory farming?

    By driving the per unit farm gate price down for producers, we are forcing many out of business, feeding the "go big or go home" trend of modern agriculture, and urging surviving producers to push their land and other resources all the harder.

  24. Ken--backpedaling. Ha-ha. You saw that, eh? It's the same Richie Hall prevent defense strategy. I should know better than to call out a passionate academic who is a lot better with facts and figures than I am.

  25. Jude Capper (Bovidiva)October 19, 2012 at 11:53 PM

    Trevor- Thanks for the kind guest post offer. This fall is crazy busy with travel but I may take you up on that in the spring if that works for you? In the meantime, there was an article that you might fine interesting in the Huffington Post on beef sustainability today: Have a great weekend!

  26. Sounds good, Jude. Let me know when you have time and we will put it together then. I will look at the article you mentioned. Thanks!


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