A more or less annual event is taking place this Friday at our church: The Chili Cook Off. There’s a trophy of sorts, as well as glory and honour for the winner, and to be a taste tester, you buy a voting form and go around sampling all the different pots of chili. It’s a delicious event, my husband’s favourite church function of the year.
This year, if you’re submitting a chili, it cannot contain any beef. Yup, no beef in the chili. You can make it vegetarian or with chicken, but no beef.
If you’re Canadian and reading this, you’ll be surprised that I was surprised by this announcement. If you’re from elsewhere, here’s the scoop: we’ve had a major beef recall over the last 3 or 4 weeks that escalated from a few stores, a few labels and only ground beef the first week to basically all cuts of beef from a particular processing plant in Alberta, bought within the last 6 weeks and sold in almost every grocery chain in Western Canada.
I kind of knew about the recall. I saw a headline in the paper at work one day, and a colleague mentioned she’d bought some beef that she now couldn’t use. I’d had a smug moment when I was able to say that I’d only been buying pasture raised, local beef for the last couple of years. With our freezer full of home grown chicken, 30 pounds of sausage from a neighbour’s pig, a couple of packs of chops that are all that remains from the lamb we bought last year from a local farmer, we really are pretty immune from food scares like the one affecting everyone around us.
So even though I registered the fact that the recall had happened, since it didn’t affect my purchasing decisions or what was in my freezer, I basically moved on and forgot about it. I don’t go near the meat department of the grocery store, so I didn’t see half empty refrigerator cases which might have reminded me. I haven’t eaten at a McD’s in about 5 years, so if they have notices posted about the safety or otherwise of their hamburgers, I haven’t been there to spot them.
Consequently, when the organizer of the cook off reminded me in an afterthought kind of comment – oh, don’t forget, don’t use beef in your chili – I was taken aback. Why? I asked. It was her turn. Duh. There’s a meat recall. I know, but my beef is from a local cow, processed just a couple of hours from here, it’s fine, I assured her. She gave me a look over her reading glasses. Maybe so, she said skeptically, but even if we let you bring it, no one would eat it – it’s just too dangerous.
Dangerous? Up to now, I hadn’t really taken on board just how big this meat recall had become. It reminds me of my Navy days when we learned that the reason mine warfare is so successful is because you only have to threaten your enemy by saying you’ve mined an area, you don’t actually have to place a whole lot of mines. They will still have to proceed very cautiously, sweeping in advance of their shipping to clear the area of potential mines, which they have to do whether you’ve placed 2 mines or 20.
Of course people feel threatened by the food system when recalls like this happen. We’re trapped behind a mine field we created for ourselves. When the meat from a couple of hundred cows is mixed together so you can’t tell which one contributed the e coli, that’s a mine. When you package up that ground beef, and send it out to a dozen national grocery chains, where no one has any idea who bought it or from which outlet – that’s a minefield. Meat from healthy animals you raised yourself to your own high standards, or from a farmer you trust, processed with good sanitation and by careful hands, in small batches, or one carcass at a time – that’s no mine field. That’s a clear channel.
I’m lucky to live where I have local alternatives to big industry meat. I’m lucky to be able to afford to pay for those choices, though I should add that by doing so, I’m making other choices about what I won’t be spending money on. I keep using the word luck, but it’s really about choices. Some of us have more than others, true, but everyone should exercise their right to choose as much as they can. The almighty dollar is what drives the big ag food machine. How people choose to spend their food dollars is what determines what goes on the grocery store shelves. If enough people refused to buy a certain product or food, the store would soon decide to use the shelf space for something else that people will buy. I realize the big flaw in this is the issue of scale – it’s just not practical to suggest that a city of 500,000 can all find a local farmer to buy their side of beef or pork from, even if they wanted to, or could afford it. But I stand by my argument. The way food is processed has to change, and the only way that will happen is if the money stops flowing toward the model currently in use, and people start agitating for something else.
I sold out of chicken this summer, oversold in fact – customers got two that were meant for family consumption. My neighbour sold out of pork. Our products are not cheap in comparison to the grocery store price. So why do we sell out? Because there are plenty of people out there who understand the value of what they’re paying for. I buy pasture raised beef for my family from a local farm. It’s not cheap, but to paraphrase the L’Oreal commercial – we’re worth it. And the bottom line? My family can have chili made with beef, without any fear. That’s our choice.
Want to know more about the big beef recall? Here’s a link to the government page: http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/consumer-centre/food-safety-investigations/xl-foods/recalled-products/eng/1347948154750/1347948313776