Scaling Down

The media response following the XL Foods in Brooks, AB shutdown over the last couple months has been a dominated by concerns to make food safer: more regulation, more measures to safeguard the quality of the meat. What is remarkable is the silence regarding the state of food production in Canada and the alarming trend of centralized food processing. This trend is evident in nearly all types of food. I will use XL Foods as an example.

XL Foods was processing about one third of the beef in Canada. Beef from all over western Canada was being processed by workers who had no stake in the company owned by Nilsson Bros. which suggests the care they take in processing is probably directly proportional to the care which their employers take of them. It also means that if a rancher wants to sell their cattle, they have fewer and fewer options of buyers.

Of course the visible goals of centralized food processing is to offer lower prices to consumers and to present standardized quality to the marketplace. Below the surface however is the desire for economic dominance and a strong competitive arm in a global market. Over time, mammoth food producers have absorbed small producers. With the incredible volume of meat that one packaging plant can export, they can easily undercut any small time producer. This is basic capitalism. Who are we to argue with allowing one group to push out another group, especially if it will cost us less for that particular product?

The problem is that it is not a one-dimensional issue, the dimension being economic. The environmental impact of massive feedlots and waste from large scale processing can’t be easily ignored. Drive through Brooks on a hot summer day. What about turning the vast majority of a population into employees rather than small business owners? Is it a benefit economically to quell any possible incentive for someone to open a butcher shop and employ half a dozen local people who may or may not be shareholders in a small business?

In regards to food safety, the multinational corporate mantra has been “if we’re bigger, we can afford better safety standards.” This has brought a wave of standards that can only apply to large meat plants. A small operation would not be able to afford the types of equipment needed to implement the new regulations. This implies that a small butcher shop would carve up your roast with dirty knives in back alleys riddled with drug needles and rusting cans. However, small businesses have a far greater interest in safety standards for a number of reasons. They know their clientele. They simply wouldn’t want to be the cause of a serious illness like an e-coli infection. Another factor is economic. If a small processing plant gets a reputation for not being safe, it wouldn’t be able to survive. In addition, the regulators would shut you down anyway. What about the cost of the product? With a greater number of meat processors purchasing from ranchers and then selling to consumers, you have the natural laws of competition keeping prices fair for both producers and consumers. These motivations do not apply to the large corporate producer.

What about the food itself? When a kilogram of ground beef arrives at SuperStore or Safeway from XL Foods, it can contain meat from hundreds of different beasts. If one of them was sick or if the feces wasn’t washed off of it well enough, then any kilogram of ground beef with that particular animal’s contaminated meat is also contaminated. This multiplies the risk to highly unreasonable levels and spreads it across a vast and unnecessary geographical area. Let’s assume just one large piece of beef was contaminated in the e-coli outbreak that crippled XL Foods this fall, despite their unprecedented 21st century safety features. The meat from this one source of contamination caused illness from Newfoundland to British Columbia and could have also brought infection to the United States if their food inspectors had not stopped it. 1800 products were recalled. And by products, I do not mean items. This represents thousands upon thousands of items pulled from shelves, many of which were statistically safe, but had to be discarded anyway. This is a massive waste of food.

How does a local community move away from massive, unwieldy and crippling structures like the XL Foods Meat Processing Plant? Or the growing number of discount megastores? Or the governmental pressures to globalize local markets by opening up trade with international producers and consumers? Or culture’s taste for exotic foods and electronics? Or regulations making it difficult for smaller operations to function? Are we too far gone? Have we yielded completely to the comforts and convenience of for-profit banks, chain stores, and processed food?

My hope is that the symptoms of these monstrous systems surface sooner rather than later. People will awaken to reclaim their local economies, to revive the good of the local trades and skills, to diversify the local food production, and to remedy the broken relationships we have with our neighbours. In the mean time, I choose to gradually wean myself off of the comfortable and convenient and begin participating in my local economy.

If this resonates with you, pick up Wendell Berry’s collection of essays: Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community. It is a magnificent book.


  1. I think there are two (well more than two) issues here and you describe one of them well. Just because a small or independent slaughterhouse is, well, small or independent doesn't mean it's products aren't any safer than a giant factory producer. In fact, with the correct regulatory framework, including inspections, fines and other mechanisms, the opposite may often be true. Why penalize a small family owned facility because it's doesn't have women's dressing rooms if only three men work there, all brothers. (I seem to recall reading about exactly this situation.)

    You touched briefly on the second issue and that is one of quality. Or, put another way, Are the two facilities, one large factory, the other small independent, really producing the same thing? I think not. Somehow we are able to distinguish between IKEA factory made furniture and artisan handmade furniture and we know that the two are not really the same product. The price difference can be at least two orders of magnitude different. Yet we struggle to do the same with our food. Breaking news: Frozen hamburger patties at M&M are not the same thing as self-ground meat bought from your local cattle farmer.

  2. Well put Kevin. The older I get the more I appreciate quality – and the more willing I am to spend extra on that quality. This is a shift in attitude on my part though. I shifted from wanting volume and excess to wanting less and wanting what I have to enrich my experience. I'll be posting on personal downsizing in the coming weeks and quality is certainly factored into that.

Leave a Reply