ASSINIBOIA, Sask. — Saskatchewan cattle producers are worried about how the industry will recover from the negative publicity of E. coli at the XL Foods slaughter plant in Brooks, Alta.
They also wonder if a Saskatchewan slaughter plant fits into future plans of JBS USA, the company that is now managing XL with an option to buy.
The XL Foods plant in Moose Jaw has been closed since April 2009.
“It was viable and a great asset for those of us who want to kill cows here in Saskatchewan,” said Saskatchewan Cattlemen’s Association chair Mark Elford during his district meeting last week.
But the Moose Jaw plant wasn’t included in the JBS deal and neither industry officials nor Saskatchewan agriculture minister Lyle Stewart said they had heard anything to suggest it would re-open anytime soon.
Elford said another bidder for cows and bulls would be welcome in the province that has Canada’s second-largest cattle herd.
JBS’s beef plant in Utah is one American plant that would take Canadian cattle, and had been processing more of them since the E. coli discovery.
As the company moves into Canada that also limits bidders, Elford said.
Producers at the meeting said the E. coli story was characterized by misinformation and fear that caught even some of them off-guard. One noted that his grandfather, who had raised cattle all his life, phoned and told him not to eat hamburger.
Several asked what steps the industry should take to repair its reputation.
Elford said Canada Beef is planning a media campaign but is waiting for an appropriate time.
“The negative media was way too much,” he said.
Lynn Grant, a rancher from Val Marie who also sits on the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association board, said producers had to consider whether keeping the issue in front of consumers was a good idea.
“We could just make a bad situation worse,” he said.
Kelcy Elford agreed but said society is media-driven.
“I don’t think it would be a mistake, as a producer, to show pasture to plate,” he said.
Grant said communication should have been better.
“We were left in the dark and worse yet the public was left in the dark,” he said.
“The issue was not handled as appropriately as it should have been.”
A protocol should be developed to handle similar types of events in the future, he said, and it should be drafted to keep the integrity of the industry in consumers’ minds.