It’s no surprise that local food activists are using the recent XL Foods beef recall to push their agenda.
After all, the beef recall involving the plant in Brooks, Alta., affected more than 2,000 products and is being called the largest beef recall in Canadian history.
Seventeen people have so far been diagnosed with E. coli in connection to meat from the plant.
Local food activists, or locavores, believe food should be grown or produced in their local community or region. Local food is fresher, better tasting and more nutritious, they maintain. They adhere to the “food miles” notion that shipping food long distances increases greenhouse gases. As a result, they avoid it.
Yet there is no convincing evidence that local food is better tasting or more nutritious. We buy exported food because it is a better bang for our buck. Local food is often more costly.
In the age of efficient inter-modal container shipping, growing things in better conditions elsewhere and shipping them over long distances often emits fewer emissions than growing food domestically.
Experts say much more energy is used in food production than transportation.
One such expert is geographer Pierre Desrochers, an associate professor at the University of Toronto and author of The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet.
Locavores insist local food is safer because it avoids modern, industrial food production. What activists miss is the history of food production and how large-scale food production has made our food supply chain much safer than in the past.
Desrochers points out that advances in science and medicine have eradicated food-borne illnesses that were once widespread.
Proper canning, pasteurization, refrigeration, water chlorination, sanitary packing and food irradiation have made our food system the safest in human history.
Local food activists romanticize the pastoral past, but modern scientific advances eliminated food problems that were once endemic.
Most food borne illnesses requiring hospitalization or leading to fatalities don’t come from contaminated food in large food-producing facilities.
In Canada, it is estimated that there are 6.8 million cases of food-borne illnesses annually. A recent Conference Board of Canada study traces most of those illnesses to the food service industry, namely restaurants and households.
Modern agriculture has brought modern food safety protocols.
Desrochers recalled a visit he made to a Maple Leaf plant after the listeria outbreak and discovered how extensive the food safety protocols were. Thick safety protocol binders were regularly used at every step of the process.
Most of these elaborate procedures are far beyond the means of the average local farmer producing for the local farmers market.
There are economies of scale in food safety, too.
Desrochers said large, centralized operations allow companies to hire staff that study and enact food safety protocols for a living, which would be impossible for smaller farming operations. So food safety is more likely compromised in smaller operations because they cannot cost-effectively assemble the food safety equipment and know-how that larger operations can.
The other advantage to large scale production is that large food firms are juicy targets if something goes wrong. Large firms such as Maple Leaf and JBS USA want to avoid food-borne illness outbreaks because they inevitably lead to litigation and reduced sales.
Desrochers points out the obvious example of places such as India and sub-Saharan Africa where food poisoning is much more common. Open-air local markets are everywhere and eating food, especially meat, is risky.
Obviously, the XL Foods recall means we need to be more vigilant. However, the answer is not to blow an incident out of proportion or ignore advances in food safety brought about by large-scale food production. Let’s maintain some perspective.
Joseph Quesnel is a policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. This column was provided by Troy Media and has been edited for length.