Green Calgary

Ask Green Calgary

Oct
19
2012

“Beefing Up” Our Sustainable Food System

Filed in: Food Choices, Local Business, Products & Services, Shopping

Reader Question

Dear Green Calgary,

I’ve been reading a lot about this recall at the XL Foods plant and I’m a little nervous about buying beef again once it’s blown over. What can I do to protect myself and my family?

Thank you,

Angela


Our Answer

It’s been well over a month since E. coli contamination was first found in meat from XL Foods and we can all say with certainty that this has turned into a significant news story (and for good reason).  Its effects on Alberta – and Southern Alberta in particular has been extremely harmful to cattle farmers of Alberta, the economy of Brooks, and most importantly, a serious health concern for the 15 people (at last count) with illnesses related to the consumption of contaminated meat products supplied by XL Foods.

While E. coli does not negatively affect a great deal of people on a regular basis, most of us have certainly heard about E. coli outbreaks on occasion.  E. coli (or Escherichia coli) are bacteria that live in the digestive systems of animals (including humans) normally.  There are many strains of E. coli, however, and most of them are beneficial.  The strain of E. coli that we usually hear about in the news and that which carries the strongest warnings is the strain known as 0157:H7.  This particular strain is capable of causing severe diarrhea, kidney damage, and sometimes death in humans.  Groups which are often most vulnerable include children, the elderly, and those with already compromised immune systems.

Typically, E. coli is found in meat products but incidents of contamination of other food products have sometimes been found to carry dangerous E. coli contamination as well, particular where the goods are grown in an area where improperly composted cattle manure is used, which spreads the bacteria.  The bacteria can also be spread from person to person through hand-to-mouth contact.

So how does one avoid the risk of purchasing or consuming contaminated meat products now and in the future?

Firstly, choose sustainable, locally grown and raised meat, ideally a meat product you can trace from field to plate. Not sure how to find local, sustainable meat producers and butchers? Here are some suggestions:

Go to your farmers market, local butcher shop or grocer and ask questions – LOTS of them!

A great resource to ensure you are asking the right questions of these meat suppliers is from the Sustainable Table website. This website has a series of questions to ask farmers and store managers about their wares along with the answers you should be listening for. Below are just some of the questions for cattle farmers found on the website:

• Are your animals raised on pasture?
• How are your animals finished?
• Are your cows ever given antibiotics?

For more information on how these questions may be answered, check out Sustainable Table’s “Questions to Ask a Beef Farmer”.

And – there are good questions to ask other types of farmers too. Check out Sustainable Table’s other great guides:
General questions
Dairy farmers
Poultry farmers
Hog farmers
Produce farmers
http://www.sustainabletable.org/spread/handouts/Questions_Manager.pdf

If you’ve spent any time at a farmers market you know that sustainable farmers are very open about how they raise their animals, how and where they grow or source the feed, where the animals are processed, if antibiotics were used etc. If you’re still unsure, ask the farmer if you can visit their farm to see exactly how the animals are raised. Most farmers welcome visitors.

If you purchase products from a store or butcher that advertises sustainably raised animal products, ask for their standards in writing. If they aren’t willing or able to share this information with you, you may want to reconsider shopping with them.

There are also environmental implications to our meat buying and consumption choices. Conventionally raised livestock represents the second greatest contributor of atmosphere altering gases (after energy production). For an in depth study of the impacts conventional animal production is having on our environment set aside some time to read this report from the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America.

Looking at the serving sizes of the meat we eat is also very important.  Canada’s Food Guide considers a serving as 75g or 2.5 ounces of meat.  Currently, we eat about twice the amount of meat that the USDA recommends for a healthy diet.

One way to eat less meat is to try incorporating other forms of proteins into your diet. You can start by trying our Meatless Monday recipes on our Facebook and Twitter pages for inspiration, or try to create vegetarian alternatives for your favorite recipes!  If you want to take this a step further you could consider the route Graham Hill, the founder of TreeHugger suggests in becoming a part time, or weekday vegetarian. Sound compelling? Have a listen to his argument and presentation at TED Talks.

Want to know more about how to shop and source local and sustainable food for you and your family? Visit Green Calgary’s Sustainable Food Choices resource listing on our website.

With that, we’d like to leave you with a great video that many of our Healthy Homes participants will no doubt recognize.  Enjoy listening to Mark Bittman’s “What’s Wrong With What We Eat”.

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