Alberta’s agriculture minister says it’s not the time for the province to grant emergency funding to cattle producers affected by the XL Foods plant closure, but the Redford government will support any campaign to bolster the reputation of the country’s beef.
Verlyn Olson told reporters Monday he’s interested in promoting Alberta and Canadian beef in the wake of the country’s largest-ever beef recall, “and you will be hearing more about the steps that we’re taking to ensure that happens.”
“I’ll just tell you that we support any campaign that will get the message out that everything that can be done is done to keep food safe,” Olson said, following a tour of the massive Cargill Meat Solutions facility in High River.
The Cargill plant has ramped up production to help meet beef processing demand since the XL Foods plant in Brooks was shuttered last month.
Olson was accompanied on the tour by representatives of the industry, including Canada Beef president Rob Meijer, who said a media campaign to address consumer concerns about food safety — without a lot of “technical speak to it” — could be rolled out within the next two weeks.
“We’re going to be talking to consumers and the public, much more directly,” said Meijer, whose organization markets and promotes Canadian beef worldwide.
On Monday, there were signs the XL Foods plant in Brooks could get the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s (CFIA) approval to start slaughtering cattle again before the end of the week.
With 15 people in four provinces sick from a strain of E. coli linked to the Brooks facility, more than 1,800 beef products sold by XL Foods have been pulled from store shelves in the past month.
The plant has also been shut out of the key U.S. market since Sept. 13 and was closed by federal inspectors almost three weeks ago.
In the interim, the Cargill facility in High River — which has 2,000 employees who process 4,500 head of cattle per day — has added a Saturday shift and has been operating six days a week to pick up the slack.
Speaking to reporters outside the plant, Olson addressed concerns about a recent drop in cattle prices. He said there are other factors contributing to the price dip besides the decline of processing capacity.
Still, cattle producers say they are feeling anxious every day the XL plant is still closed.
But the minister said that with an array of agricultural programs already in place to help farmers and ranchers, there’s no need for an infusion of emergency cash, at this point.
“It’s early days in terms of things like disaster programs. We are not contemplating that,” Olson said.
The NDP and the Liberals have slammed the Redford government for being “cheerleaders” for Alberta beef rather than making public health its priority.
All three opposition parties — including the official Opposition Wildrose — have also called for the government to consider providing incentives to create new meat packing capacity in the province.
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said Monday that such a move is a necessity.
“We have to. There’s no question,” she said. “It’s clear we are so tight for slaughterhouse capacity in Western Canada that we need to look at ways we can expand the capacity for small and mid-size operators.”
“We can’t allow our consumers to be put in this position where a single incident creates so much disruption and there are no other options.”
However, Olson questioned whether it’s the government’s place to interfere in the market.
“I wonder about (whether) the role of government is to mandate how big an operation should be, how big a business should be,” he told reporters.