Saturday, September 29, 2012

No beef at Food Basics stores

The beef counters are empty at Food Basics stores in my area, which is Kitchener-Waterloo.

Food Basics is owned by Metro which is one of the stores involved in the recall of beef from XL Foods Inc. of Alberta.

A lot of people are suffering because the people at the XL plant at Brooks, Alta., failed miserably. And that's both XL and Canadian Food Inspection Agency staff.

The George Morris Centre recently wrote a piece saying Canada's biggest farms are getting to the point where they, like the big banks, are too big to fail.

Well, with more than a third of the Canadian beef supply running through XL, it's definitely too big to fail without huge repercussions on public health, farmers, retailers and the entire beef value chain.

Mushroom growers annoyed

Canada's mushroom growers are annoyed that there have been four recent recalls prompted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency that, on further examination, all proved to be false alarms.

Bill Stevens of Guelph, who works for the Mushroom Growers Association, said the recalls have been prompted by the CFIA after inspectors picked up samples are retail stores and ran a rapid screening test for harmful bacteria.

Those preliminary tests indicated there might be a problem, and on that basis recalls went into effect, each one costing the grower about $30,000, Stevens told me recently.

Four-day and more thorough culture tests found no harmful bacteria.  Oops!

Stevens said one of the association members has told the CFIA that if it orders a recall on a similar rapid-screening test basis of samples picked up at retail outlets, he will call his lawyer to deal with the CFIA.

It seems that every day now I run into another complaint about the CFIA. 

And what the CFIA has been saying throughout this E. coli disaster at XL Foods Inc. in Alberta prompts me to question whether the public can believe a word its leaders say.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Auto research changes gears

Port Colborne – The Canadian auto industry is undergoing a radical change in approach to research and development, looking to companies to ask researchers to tackle their issues.

Peter Frise, a professor at the University of Windsor, told the Ontario Agri-Food Technologies meeting here recently that any industry, including agriculture, could copy the new approach.

Frise said Canada has one of the best research and education records in the world, but is poor at making money from the discoveries.

“Research is the process of putting money in and getting knowledge, and we’re good at that,” he said.

“Commercialization is the process of putting knowledge in and getting money out, and we suck at that,” Frise said.

Canada has a research-push system, he said, with researchers deciding what they will research and asking governments for money. A lot of that money is invested in buildings and equipment.

What other countries, such as Germany, do is put research to work solving issues raised by companies, he said.

The radical new approach he’s helping to pioneer is the Canadian Automotive Research Centre which will provide government money to match what companies invest.

At least 25 per cent of the company investment must be cash, he said. In return, they get to own all of the intellectual property rights.

Frise said universities have a terrible track record on intellectual property rights, taking far too long to secure patents and not knowing how to exploit their value.

He said the new approach for the auto industry is designed to be fast, flexible and responsive to market opportunities.

The automotive research centre will be a “virtual centre,” meaning it will have no physical assets, such as buildings and equipment, and will involve professors and students from a number of universities.

We have enough of those, he said of Canada.

He said the average doctoral graduate is 30 years old and has never worked in a company, yet we expect them to start innovating as soon as they are hired. 

The new approach will include opportunities for companies to take a student for four to six months for $5,000 and use them to conduct research.

It should be mutually beneficial, he said. The student placements would be subsidized.

“This is a whole new way of doing things, and it works because it has been tried in Germany and other places,” Frise said.

It's about time somebody had this kind of fresh idea to commercialize our Canadian research. And I've been at the University of Guelph on a fellowship to study biotechnology, and know that Frise is absolutely right about our Canadian system being based on research-push instead of company-pull and that the universities are abysmal at commercializing research findings and intellectual property rights.

There is, however, one good reason why governments are hesitant about this approach of company-led research - the history of the Scientific Research Tax Credit policy. Canadians responded with tremendous innovation at sucking mega-millions of cash out of Ottawa in return for phoo-phoo dust.

Only a small percentage of the scammers went to prison.

PFO requests increase in chicken-quota exemption

Practical Farmers of Ontario (PFO), the newest general farm organization in the province, has asked Chicken Farmers of Ontario to increase the annual exemption from quota from 300 to 2,000 birds, and has been rejected.

Sean McGivern, president of PFO, is asking the marketing board to reconsider.

If, as he expects, the board repeats its rejection, he plans to appeal to the Ontario Farm Products Marketing Commission.

McGivern notes that other provinces offer a much higher exemption to farmers who don’t need to have quota to raise chickens and said that puts Ontario farmers at a competitive disadvantage. McGivern notes that Ontario has lost 23 per cent of its farms in the last 15 years.

He also notes that Ontario has a bigger population, there is a diverse demand for specialty products small-flock owners could fill and there is demand for large roasters.

The chicken board, via vice-president Gwen Zellen who handles food safety issues, replied to PFO that the 300-bird exemption is intended to allow families to raise chickens for their own consumption. They are also allowed to sell to buyers who come to the farm.

She said the average flock raised by about 13,000 small-flock permit holders is 56 birds and sales average one bird per 15 raised by small-flock permit holders.

McGivern said that letter does not address the issues the PFO raised with the board.

“The current 300 bird level is neither practical nor viable, it is inefficient and appears by design to assure failure,” McGivern wrote the chicken board.

The exemption level is 2,000 birds per year in Alberta’ and British Columbia, and 999 in Manitoba for the first year and then farmers can apply for an exemption to produce to meet market demand.

Saskatchewan recently increased its limit to 4,000, but capped it at 1.5 per cent of the province’s allocation from the national marketing agency.

Nova Scotia’s limit is 500 birds, but farmers can, after the initial year, apply to go as high as 10,000 birds without quota.

XL plant shut down

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has shut down the XL Foods Ltd. plant at Brooks, Alta., which is the most drastic action the agency can take.

It has also detained all of the meat at the plant and says it won’t be released until testing confirms it is safe.

The plant has been under intensive scrutiny and orders to clean up since U.S. border inspectors identified E. coli 1057:H7 in a shipment of ground beef from the plant.

The United States had the CFIA yank XL’s permission to export to the U.S. on Sept. 16.

Although the CFIA confirmed those results a day later, it took more than a week for the agency to start issuing recalls. 

It has taken another two weeks for the agency to realize that the company isn’t cleaning up as ordered and promised and to suspend its licence, effectively shutting it down. The CFIA also gradually extended the recall bit by bit until it embraced products shipped right across Canada.

The United States Food Safety and Inspection Service has issued its own recall of XL beef that extends to more than 30 states and includes big retailers, such as Walmart, Krogers and Albertson’s.

In Canada the recall includes ground beef, meatloaf and similar products marketed by Safeway, Loblaws, Sobeys, Metro, Co-op and many more retailers.

The CFIA issued a statement, noting that the company took initial steps to comply, but “based on information provided by XL Foods Inc. on September 26, as well as through CFIA inspector oversight, the CFIA has determined that these deficiencies have not been completely corrected.

“To date, the company has not adequately implemented agreed upon corrective actions and has not presented acceptable plans to address longer-term issues,” the CFIA said.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said nothing in the CFIA statement. A day earlier he said in the House of Commons that none of the XL beef reached consumers, that nobody has fallen ill and that the CFIA's performance has been "outstanding" and "exemplary".

The closure of the XL plant idles Canada's second-largest beef-slaughtering facility. Beef farmers in Alberta a bound to suffer because they will have to find markets further from home.

Meanwhile, Ritz and the CFIA staff will continue to draw full salary and benefits.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ritz lambasted over XL Beef

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz is on the hot seat for the way the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has handled food-safety issues at XL Foods Inc. where a recall because of E. coli 0157:H7 continues to expand.

The United States Food Safety and Inspection Service, it turns out, was the first to identify beef from the plant that was contaminated with E. coli 1057:H7, a form of E. coli that produces poisons that can severely sicken people and lead to death or kidney failure for those too weak to fight off the poison.

It’s the same strain of E. coli that contaminated drinking water at Walkerton.

Even though U.S. border officials identified the contamination on Sept. 3, it took the CFIA more than a week to issue a recall and then it was limited mainly to Safeway stores in Western Canada.

Now the recall extends to 30 states across the U.S., from coast to coast in Canada and involves all four of Canada’s largest supermarket chains.

XL Foods runs Lakeside Packers near Calgary, which is the second-largest beef-slaughtering plant in Canada.

In the House of Commons, Ritz was blasted for cutting budgets and staff at the CFIA.

He also took a beating for saying earlier this week that the CFIA is doing “an exemplary job”, that none of the XL beef reached consumers in the U.S. and that nobody got sick.

In fact, the U.S. recall now includes many retail outlets, including Walmart, and in fact at least four people are in hospital in Calgary suffering food poisoning from the E. coli strain that genetically matches what has been identified in XL beef.

The U.S. has banned beef from XL from entering the country.

After the outbreak, the CFIA examined the company’s records and sanitation and has identified deficiencies.

Ritz said there are 48 CFIA inspectors at the facility.

It’s not clear how all of those inspectors missed the deficiencies that were identified after E. coli turned up in the company’s products.

So far there has been no comment from any farm organizations, although the recall is prompting many Canadians to stop buying ground beef.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Ritz out to lunch – again

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz is once again out to lunch while a meat packer undergoes a huge recall of tainted products.

When it was Maple Leaf Foods Inc. recalling processed meats, many of them cold cuts, because of Listeria monocytogenes, Ritz said it was death by a thousand cold cuts.

That went over really well with the families of the 21 people who died and others who were sickened.

Now in the midst of a massive and growing recall of ground beef and steaks from XL Foods Inc. of Edmonton, he is quoted in Hansard saying “The people at CFIA have done an exemplary job.”

Yeah, right!

So wonderful that they missed all of those deficiencies and failures to conduct adequate testing and to keep adequate food-safety records.

That only surfaced after the massive recall began, when, in farmer language, the horse had escaped from the barn.

And why, pray tell, has the CFIA failed to require the company to keep good enough records that there could, and should, have been only one recall. We’re now up to eight and still counting.

Ritz said the CFIA is working hard to regain the confidence of the United States meat packers and Food Safety and Inspection Service and “to get back into that lucrative American market.”

I guess the Canadian market doesn’t count.

Ritz is once again out to lunch, apparently oblivious to the hit that beef consumption is taking because Canadians are afraid to buy hamburger from any of the major supermarket chains. I have encountered a number of people who say they’ve stopped buying hamburger at supermarkets. Maybe also the fast-food restaurant chains, although I haven’t personally heard any comments about them.

Ritz said “I reiterate that none of the product made it to store shelves and no illnesses have been linked back to this particular strain of E. coli.

“We have actually done a tremendous job."

I guess the Calgary famlly whose little girl is in hospital with, the parents say,  E. coli food poisoning, are really impressed with this “tremendous job.”

The food inspection service at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is in dire need of a shakeup, or shakedown.

And it’s not only meats that require a total overhaul.

Eggs are another product where the CFIA track record is abysmal, as revealed in court documents related to the lawsuits against Ontario’s two dominant egg graders and the general manager of the Egg Farmers of Ontario marketing board.

Eggs that passed CFIA inspection at the two dominant egg-grading company plants, and that were requested by the general manager of the egg board, arrived at another egg-grading station dirty, so cracked and broken that they were leaking all over. These were supposedly Grade A eggs.

And if you believe the claims of the dominant egg grading companies that the eggs were Grade A when they left their premises and must have become dirty, cracked and broken in transit, then I’d like to interest you in investing in some swamp land in Florida.

And if they did get dirty, cracked and broken in transit, what does that say about those companies’ trucking performance?

But the obvious need for major changes to food inspection at the CFIA are not going to happen under Ritz who says they are doing “a tremendous job” or “an exemplary job.”

He’s out to lunch. Maybe of a thousand cold cuts.

Meanwhile beef farmers and the entire meat-packing industry suffers a loss of consumer confidence.

China storing pork

China is putting pork into cold storage because it expects a global shortage next year.

And the National Pig Association in the United Kingdom says there will be a shortage of pork and bacon next year because of the current crisis on hog farms hit by sky-rocketing feed costs that result from drought reducing this year’s corn harvests in the United States and Russia.

Steve Meyer, an economist based in Iowa, predicts pork prices will hit record highs next year.

At the moment, however, North America’s hog farmers are losing about $40 on every pig they ship to market. Production costs are at least $170 per head, two-thirds of that for feed, and market prices are about $130.

Weaner producers – those who keep sows to produce little pigs that other farmers buy to raise to market weight – are being devastated by the current market. Many buyers are ignoring long-term contracts they signed for weaners and prices have dropped to near give-away levels.

As a result, some of Canada’s largest hog-producing companies are already bankrupt and more are likely to follow before Christmas.

Farmers are shipping entire herds to market because they can’t afford to feed them, and so there will be a much-reduced breeding herd by Christmas time which is why market watchers expect reduced pork supplies next year and higher prices.

Prices may not, however, be high enough to cover the increased costs of feed until next year’s harvests.

Beware governments feeding students

There’s a new push in Toronto to get the provincial government involved in subsidizing school breakfast programs.

While teachers say students learn better if they get a nutritious breakfast and snacks at school, if the government gets involved it will trigger a lot of lobbying by farmers and food processors.

A look at the United States school lunch program provides a glimpse of what we could expect.

There farm organizations representing dairy farmers, pork producers, apple growers, etc., have lobbied the government to favour their commodities.

There have also been abuses by unscrupulous meat packers who have been found marketing less-than-wholesome products under the subsidies.

And now the United States Department of Agriculture, which runs the subsidy program, has issued new guidelines. Trans fats are out, sodium content must be reduced, more whole grains, fruits and vegetables must be served.

The rules get down to the nitty-gritty. For example, schools must offer nine to 12 whole grain options for high school students. Meals must fall within a specified calorie range – for example, 750 to 850 calories for high schools.

Imagine how much money and effort Ontario’s supply-management marketing boards for dairy and poultry products would put into lobbying for their products to be on the school menus.

Less wealthy commodity organizations, such as goat milk farmers, blueberry growers and honey producers would be hard-pressed to raise a whisper to the roar from these aggressive, well-heeled marketing boards.

Why have the government responsible for supplying meals?
Why not hold parents responsible? And if they can’t afford it, then make sure they get the means to feed their children. Given current housing costs, welfare levels are woefully inadequate. They say people in Toronto have less than $5.50 a day left for everything else.

What we have today in our schools is a patchwork of breakfast and lunch programs funded and organized by local school boards, individual schools and charitable organizations. 

At least that approach has avoided the politics that have come to play in the U.S. programs. Having the province run school breakfast and lunch programs is an invitation for trouble.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Pressure on antibiotic use mounts

More than 150 scientists are criticizing the U.S. government proposal to simply ask farmers to voluntarily be more responsible about using antibiotics.

They say medical doctors have done their part, but farmers have not, to reduce abuses of antibiotics that increase the incidence of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.

“While we support the effort to renounce drug approvals for injudicious uses, we cannot support a voluntary approach," they wrote.

"Too much is at risk to leave public health to the discretion of those whose financial interests run counter to the aim of reducing drug use. Moreover, the voluntary process could take more than five years and even then might not lead to meaningful drug use reduction.”

A group of 50 farmers and ranchers issued their own statement calling for an end to the use of antibiotics as growth promotants.

They said “we believe the imprudent use of antibiotics not only renders antibiotics less effective or ineffective for sick farm animals, it also threatens public health and the safety of our nation’s food supply.

“It is not only possible but actually economically viable to produce meat, dairy products, and eggs that are safe to eat without continually dosing animals with drugs they don’t need,” the farmers and ranchers wrote.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Egg cages rattling in B.C.

Miles Materi of Mountain Morning Farms at Salmon Arm, B.C., is fighting mad about an inspection by the British Columbia Egg Marketing Board.

He said the inspector arrived at his premises accompanied by a disgruntled RCMP officer “who really didn’t want to be there” to help the board exercise a search warrant.

He said the inspector entered his barn, took a few pictures and left.

He believes the inspection came as retaliation for his aggressive pursuit of documents about the egg board’s operations, particularly with regards to L.H. Gray and Son Ltd.

He filed a Freedom of Information request that includes documents relating to Gray’s egg-grading operations in the province, but has yet to get anything a year later.

Materi believes Gray and the B.C. egg board have “shut down all the grading stations” that are competitors “and now they’re trying to take a run at me.” He said so far he hasn't been able to get solid, documented evidence to substantiate that belief.

In his running battle with the egg board and its supervisory body, the Farm Industry Review Board, Materi says he warned them “I’m going to rattle every skeleton in the closet I can.” The egg board inspector arrived soon after.

He has also used Freedom of Information to gather Ontario documents about Gray and has obtained copies of Court of Appeal documents related to a multi-million-dollar lawsuit that small-scale competitor Svante Lind has filed against Gray, Burnbrae Farms Ltd. and the Ontario egg marketing board.

He has accused them of conspiracy to drive him out of the egg-grading business, of violations of Canada's Competition Act and of marketing dirty and cracked eggs, claiming they are Grade A.

Gray, the Hudson family which controls Burnbrae and the egg board deny any wrongdoing. The allegations of conspiracy and a number of other illegal acts remain to be tested in court.

Materi said the Farm Industry Review Board has stalled the release of information for more than a year. He appealed to the province’s privacy commissioner, pointing out that some of the information he seeks relates to public health and safety.

More recently, Materi said the Attorney-General’s office has asked him to provide documentation about his complaints about egg-industry shenanigans by Monday.

He said he believes the Attorney-General’s office is delving into “governance issues.”

Canadian farm subsidies more than double U.S. level

Last year Canadian farmers got 16 per cent of their revenues from the federal and provincial governments, says the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
That compares with nine per cent for farmers in the United States, one per cent in New Zealand, 60 per cent in Norway and an average of 19 per cent for members of the OECD.
As high as this might seem – a total of $252 billion – it is actually a record low.
The OECD says government policies didn’t change much, but global food prices increased. 
The agency praised Canada for ending the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly on wheat and barley exports from the Prairies, calling it “a positive step to enhance proactive price risk management by farmers.”
But the OECD said Canada’s dairy, poultry and egg sectors ''continue to receive high price support.'' That counts as a government subsidy in the OECD calculations.
One of the values of the calculations is setting the stage for global trade negotiations aimed at reducing the export of highly-subsidized foods because they become fierce competition for farmers in countries that can’t afford subsidies.
The current “Doha Round” of World Trade negotiations was aimed at helping poor countries, but after 10 years of talks, negotiations are stalled with no signs that they will revive any time soon.
Instead, Canada and many other relatively wealthy nations of the world are involved in country-to-country or regional trade negotiations, such as Canada with the European Union and the Trans-Pacific Partnership group that includes the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

It pays to buy healthy food at Wal-Mart

Walmart and health insurer Humana Inc. launched a rewards program that provides a five percent credit for buying healthy foods including lean meats and poultry.

Walmart customers who are members of a Humana healthy rewards program will get the credit, which can be used on future Walmart purchases, for buying products —including meats, fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy items and packaged foods — that qualify for the company’s Great For You icon.  The program begins Oct. 15.

Needless to say, the program does not apply in Canada. We pay for our health care through taxes, not premiums to private companies such as Humana.

Besides, I can just imagine the lobbying if Canadian provinces, which run medicare, ever decided to subsidize healthy foods. It's one good reason why I think it's wise for Canadian governments to steer clear of school lunch and food bank programs.

Cash for people in poverty makes far more sense. And speaking of that, a new report from Toronto indicates that many of the people who use food banks there have less than $5.50 a day left after they pay rent. That $5.50 has to cover food, transportation, clothing, etc. 

And to think that it took pressure from the NDP to simply add a bit of income tax to the wealthiest people in the province. Shame! Shame!

Walmart said it was responding to research that shows consumers often struggle to purchase healthier foods due to price.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Bad news Chad’s hog outlook

Shakespeare – Chad Hart, a University of Iowa agriculture economist specializing in grains, brought nothing but bad news to about 150 people, 20 of them students at Ridgetown, to the Shakespeare Swine Seminar here today.

He said the current hog-industry crisis, with losses of $30 to $50 per hog, will be worse than the record-breaking crisis of 2008-2009.

He said losses will persist until at least a year from now and perhaps for two to three years.

He said the drought-reduced corn crop, which is responsible for the losses, carries more bad news – lighter bushel weights and therefore less nutrition than last year’s high-quality harvest and aflotoxin contamination from pockets of Southern Iowa.

Aflotoxin-contaminated corn used to be banned from the market, but this week the United States government waived that rule, allowing that corn to be “blended off” with toxin-free corn to the point that there ought not to be a problem for hogs consuming the feed.

But Hart said farmers will need to be cautious about the corn quality they buy and how they feed it.
Although he didn’t say so, it’s likely to be riskier to feed rations with any aflotoxin content to sows than to near market-ready hogs.

He said ethanol plants are extremely wary of aflotoxin-laced corn, so that means it’s going to be pushed into feed.

Ethanol producers are cutting back so there will be less dried distillers grains and that’s going to hurt hog farmers who have come to depend on that for feed. Some will have to switch to other feed sources and the hogs won’t like that change in their ration.

Hart said it will be at least six months – when corn and soybean crops in South America reach harvest – before there will be any relief on the cost of feed.

But he also said it’s unlikely that there will be another drought disaster in the U.S. Midwest next year because back-to-back droughts have seldom happened.

However, if there is another drought next year, he said corn prices could go from just under $8 a bushel now to $10.

He said hog marketings will continue to increase as farmers ship at lighter weights and cull sows, pushing volumes to packing-plant capacity in October and November. He said whenever hog marketings reach plant capacity, hog prices go down.

If farmers react swiftly to the bad markets to quit hog production or to drastically cut back, hog prices could pick up enough to cover cash costs by late next summer, he said.

If production persists, it could be 2014 before hog prices go high enough to cover cash costs and 2015 before they’re high enough to restore reasonable profit margins.

He said consumers are in a bad economy and unlikely to be willing to pay high prices for meat.

He compared costs of production calculated by Iowa State University and by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and said he’s surprised that Canadians hold a cost advantage over Iowa on weaner pig production costs.

Iowa farmers hold an advantage on finishing hogs which, he said, explains why Canadians sell weaner pigs to Iowa finishers and then U.S. packers market pork to Canadian supermarket chains.

He said production practices, genetics and efficiencies are similar, so the cost gap between Ontario and Iowa has narrowed over the last four to five years.

He said Iowa lost half of its hog farmers in the 2008-09 crisis, but none of its production volume. He anticipates a similar pattern will prevail in this crisis.

U.S. steps up “pink slime” bacteria testing

Although it doesn’t say so, the Food Safety Inspection Service of the United States Department of Agriculture is stepping up its vigilance for harmful bacteria in beef trimmings which would include lean, finely-textured beef, as the meat industry terms it, or “pink slime” as a food inspector labeled it.

If you thought the "pink slime" controversy that rocked the U.S. beef industry this summer didn't affect Canadians, think again. Although Health Canada bans lean, finely-textured beef (otherwise termed pink slime), the U.S. controversy roiled beef-market prices.

Now the increase in testing for bacteria is likely to lead to new standards for all beef trimmings, including any from Canada.

And Canadian packers aren't likely to take the time, trouble and expense to segregate beef destined for U.S. customers from beef for the Canadian market. In other words, the U.S. government reaction to the pink slime controversy could hit Canadians, and hit hard.

What the FSIS is saying is that it is redesigning its E. coli verification testing program for beef manufacturing trimmings “to make the program more risk-based and to enable the agency to calculate ongoing statistical prevalence estimates for that pathogen in trimmings.”

It will be checking the incidence of E. coli0157:H7 and six other strains of E. coli that give rise to toxins that result in food poisoning. That means a lot more sampling and testing.

They will also be checking salmonella strains and organisms that serve as indicators that the meat might have food pathogens.