PONOKA, Alta. — There will be plenty of time for finger pointing over the next few months, says the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.
For now, CCA’s goal has been to help reopen the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta., find a home for the growing backlog of Canadian fat cattle and ensure Canadians continue to eat beef, said president Martin Unrau.
“Our first priority is to get this opened up and to have the assurance the food is safe and the consumers and retailers can be relaxed about eating beef. That’s our first priority,” Unrau said during an Alberta Beef Producers meeting.
“You don’t want to start pointing fingers until this is over and then you can start evaluating it, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Erwin Wolter said he has no problem pointing fingers at XL Foods, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the federal government for creating the problem that has caused Canadian cattle producers millions of dollars.
“The CFIA is as much to blame for it as XL Foods and the Canadian government is to blame because of the cutbacks in their agriculture budgets and cutting back on inspectors and not giving inspectors enough clout to push that button and say, ‘hey, nothing is happening until this is cleaned up,’ ” said Wolter of Falun, Alta., who has 500 fat cattle ready to ship to a slaughter plant.
Wolter said XL Foods owners Lee and Brian Nilsson’s tough business attitude may have caused the problem, but the CFIA has equal responsibility for causing millions in losses to producers because of its decisions to keep the plant closed and declare millions of pounds of beef unsafe for human consumption.
“That meat (has) nothing wrong with it, but how can you take a chance? In the eyes of the public, it has to make it look like they are doing their job. I don’t think CFIA was doing their job as good as they should have in the first place. Where were the inspectors when this took place?” said Wolter. “The government saves a few million in wages, but how many millions of dollars did Canadian producers lose because of this?”
Unrau said communication during the beef recall was difficult for the CCA because of limited comments from CFIA and XL Foods officials.
“The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association has taken quite a bit of heat on this because our communication was lacking, but there is no sense saying anything if you don’t know anything,” said Unrau.
Instead, the organization has worked with American packers to find homes for the 12,000 head of excess fat cattle that have come on the market weekly.
“We’ve done our best to talk to the packers south of the border if they’d be interested in these fed cattle,” Unrau said. “We’ve talked to those packers to ensure they are interested in what we have to offer in Canada so they know the numbers that are backing up in Canada.”
Unrau said one of the biggest problems in shipping fat cattle to the United States is a shortage of trucks, trailers and drivers. He estimates it would take 325 truckloads a week to haul the cattle south and there aren’t that many trucks available.
CCA vice-president Dave Solverson said once the plant reopens, the association wants to talk to government officials about striking a balance between food safety and too much regulation that may convince JBS officials not to buy the plant.
“We are concerned. Of course we want to provide safe food, but we’re concerned this could end up over- regulating us out of competitiveness,” he said. “It seems to me that we’re experienced with ground beef recall and trim recall, but when it expanded into the muscle cuts, that is hard for us to understand because of what we know of food safety.”