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Is Mad Cow or E. Coli to Blame for Alberta Beef Decline?

21 May 2013

If you live in Alberta the chances are very good that you work in one of two industries: beef, or oil. And while everything has been chugging along smoothly in this province lately, there’s still a major problem with one of those industries – beef. In the past 15 years Alberta has lost nearly half of their beef cattle producers; and in the last 10 years, the amount of beef consumed has been reduced by 10 per cent in Alberta alone. The question is now, is E. Coli to blame, or mad cow disease?

No one can forget when, on May 15, 2003, one cow was discovered to have Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis, or BSE. The cow was on a farm in northern Alberta, and it led to the slaughter of 1,400 cattle. Countries overseas slammed their doors on any beef products coming from Canada, and even around the country sales dropped.

“BSE to some degree robbed our industry of that real optimism and in its place has been a shrinking industry under financial difficulty – not confident internationally and become defensive in its domestic life,” says Ted Haney of Canadian Beef Exporting Federation.

And Ellen Goddard, agricultural marketing teacher at University of Alberta, says that people’s perceptions of the meat have changed, and this is the cause of the drop in sales.

“BSE probably changed people’s risk perceptions considerably,” she says. “They need to keep public opinion positive about the industry.”

But that’s been proving to be more difficult than it would seem, especially since Alberta’s beef troubles don’t end there. And even though CBC and Albertan farmers seem happy to blame the mad cow outbreak alone, there was another major hit to the industry that hasn’t even been mentioned. That’s the fact that almost ten years after the mad cow discovery, E. coli was also found at one Albertan beef processing plant – XL Foods.

That happened a little less than a year ago, and people still don’t seem to have gotten over it. When a plant in Brooks, Alberta was found to be contaminated with E. Coli due to improper storage and handling of beef, the plant was shut down, and massive recalls went out around the country. Still, at least 18 people in three different provinces became ill with E. Coli poisoning.

Is it any wonder, with these two major instances happening within a decade of each other that Alberta beef is still not back up to par with what it once used to be? And regardless of which incident is to blame for it, it’s clear that major damage control is needed and, just as Goddard says, a major change  in public perception is necessary.

When CBC originally ran this story, many of the comments made the point that it’s not even so much either of these issues that has them eating less beef, but simply prices – and the fact that they’re way too high.

Do you agree? Come back later today when we’ll be taking a look at the rising cost of food today, and how it’s making an impact on Canadians’ spending habits.

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