Six trends shaping animal agriculture in Alberta
The Meat of the Matter
by Alix Kemp
Albertans love their beef. But following several outbreaks that have wreaked havoc with the province’s favourite protein and its producers, you’d be forgiven if the first word that springs to mind when you think “Alberta meat” is “recall.”
After the outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in 2003, bumper stickers declared a love for Albertan beef while closed borders took their toll. Ten years later, after an E. coli outbreak at the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alberta, the province’s beef faces a whole new image problem. Alberta’s beef producers are already working on solutions to prevent more outbreaks, while producers of other livestock are coping with their own challenges.
Here’s a look at the emerging trends in Alberta’s protein, from the province’s growing bison industry to the struggles of organic milk producers.
The beef industry wants to irradiate your hamburgers. If that sounds scary, well, you may want to consider that the same technique is already used on wheat flour, spices and potatoes. It has also been commonly used on meat in the U.S. since 1997. Despite the name, irradiation actually has nothing to do with nuclear radiation. Instead, irradiation involves passing streams of electrons through food matter to shred the DNA of pathogens like E. coli.
It was more than decade ago that the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association last applied to Health Canada to allow the irradiation of ground beef. While the process was found to be safe, with no impact on food’s nutritional value, the application stalled due to consumer backlash. In March, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association submitted yet another application to Health Canada in response to the E. coli outbreak at XL Foods plant. This time around, there’s evidence that the outbreak has shifted consumers’ perspectives on irradiation. An Ipsos Reid poll found that while consumers still don’t understand what irradiation is, they’re more concerned about food-borne pathogens. It also found that more than half of Canadians would support being able to purchase
Organic Milk Goes Sour
While organic farming may be all the rage, three organic dairy producers have found it’s not quite the cash cow they were hoping for. Earlier this year, Clearview Organic Dairy, A.K.A. Dairy and Simply Organic Dairy returned to conventional dairy production, saying that the 30-cent per litre premium they expected to garner on the organic product never materialized. Instead, the premium for organic milk in Alberta hovers around 18 cents per litre, and that’s with a subsidy from Alberta Milk. Producers say it isn’t enough to cover the additional costs associated with organic farming and certification.
When the organic dairy industry got its start in Alberta, in 2007, Alberta Milk based its estimates for the premiums on prices in B.C. But in Alberta, there’s been too little demand – and too much supply from outside the province – to support a substantial premium. Much of the organic milk processed in Alberta actually originates in B.C., which means Saputo, the province’s primary processor, doesn’t need as much made-in-Alberta milk. Combined with relatively low demand in the province, that’s blown a crater in the profits organic dairies expected when they got into the business. It remains to be seen how the seven remaining organic dairies will fare. Reduced competition within Alberta, combined with new buy-Alberta initiatives put forward by retailers, could potentially help them thrive.
The High Price of Success
Alberta’s beef industry wasn’t the only one affected by the outbreak of BSE in 2003. While no bison were ever found with the disease, bans on cattle encompassed all ruminant animals, including bison, and that decimated the industry. Since then, however, the province’s bison industry hasn’t just recovered – it’s flourished.
Alberta is home to nearly 50 per cent of Canada’s domestic bison and bison farms. Between 2003 and 2011, prices for bison increased from $1.15 per pound of hot hanging weight to nearly $4. But while producers are obviously pleased with the price increase, it could cause new problems. High meat prices have spurred an increase in slaughter, and Alberta’s domestic bison herd has shrunk, as a result, by 40 per cent since 2006. Indeed, Alberta’s bison producers are finding it increasingly difficult to meet a demand for bison that’s growing in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. Consumers are finding it harder to find bison meat to buy. Despite its popularity, you’re less likely to see bison burgers on restaurant menus these days, as some restaurants have given up trying to source the product.
From Russia, Without Love
Many Canadian meat producers feed their pork and cattle ractopamine, a drug that promotes leanness. In December, Russia began restricting imports of meat containing the additive and has since announced it will join South Korea and Taiwan in only accepting certified ractopamine-free meat. That’s a big problem for pork producers, given that Russia is currently the third-largest market for their product. To continue exporting to the country, Alberta’s pork producers will need to make significant changes to how they do business, but these changes could well make selling pork to Russia uneconomical.
The news on the international relations front has been better for the province’s beef producers. In January, a decade after the BSE crisis prompted many countries to close their borders to Canadian beef, Japan finally eased restrictions. Prior to the ban, Japan was the third-largest market for Canadian beef, a position that’s now held by Hong Kong. Japan will now allow imports of beef from cattle up to 30 months old, up from the current 20.
Free (Range) Bacon and Eggs
In March, members of Calgary Co-op endorsed a non-binding resolution that encouraged the retailer to phase out the sale of pork and eggs produced using confinement-farming techniques. Instead, they want to move towards “cage-free” meat and eggs, a practice where hens and sows aren’t placed in cramped battery cages and gestation stalls.
Some of the province’s agricultural organizations are opposing the move. Darcy Fitzgerald, Alberta Pork’s executive director, took to CTV’s Alberta Primetime to argue that it was unfair for the Co-op to expect producers to bear the substantial costs necessary to produce cage-free pork. On the other hand, David Webb, a spokesperson for Egg Farmers of Alberta, says Calgary Co-op’s resolution won’t have much of an impact on the egg industry. “It’s the direction we’ve been headed for a number of years already. It’s nothing new to us,” he says, pointing out that, since 2006, conventional cage use has declined from 98.5 per cent to 85.8 per cent. The organization, he adds, has passed a motion to formally phase out the use of confinement cages.
It’s not surprising Egg Farmers of Alberta has already identified the need for the transition. After all, Calgary Co-op isn’t the first retailer to push for more ethical farming practices. Wendy’s and Burger King have both started to shift towards cage-free suppliers, while Tim Hortons announced in April that, by 2022, it plans to fully transition to suppliers using open housing for their pork and eggs.
Aquaculture is still a relatively small industry in Alberta, with around 10 fish farms operating in the province. Most produce trout for u-fish businesses or private ponds, while tilapia is a popular choice for the grocery and restaurant markets. But aquaculture in Alberta, which brings in roughly $10 million annually, is poised for growth as fish consumption increases globally.
While open-ocean fish farming on the coasts has gotten a bad rap due to concerns over the spread of sea lice from farmed salmon to wild fish, contained inland fish farms are considered environmentally sustainable. In fact, tank-raised fish receive the highest grade from Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. Inland salmon farms are beginning to crop up in B.C. and could start making their way to Alberta as consumer demand for sustainably-farmed fish increases.