Listeria and the food system

The ongoing listeriosis outbreak in Canada is evidence of how broken out primary food system is, particularly insofar as meat is concerned. Producing billions of clones in packed conditions is dangerous enough, particularly if you simultaneously marinate them in growth hormones and antibiotics. Marrying that with a food system where every step of the production chain is concealed from consumers increases the risk.

What is most astonishing to me is the result of a poll conducted by The Globe and Mail on their website. Asked: “Has the listeriosis outbreak damaged your opinion of Maple Leaf products?” 38% of respondents said “no.” Perhaps this demonstrates the degree to which we are not aware of the shortfalls of our food system and food regulation, to the point where we accept this kind of occurrence as an inevitable consequence of food production.

More people should read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. A safer, healthier food system is entirely possible. It will not, however, emerge while people are still happy to accept a dozen Canadian deaths (and counting) as part of the cost of having “pre-packaged meat products” available for purchase.

Stories of this kind sometimes makes me wonder whether personal vegetarianism is actually a selfish choice. Opting out of the system can be seen as an inferior alternative to agitating for change. After all, it was basically consumer demand that produced the emergence of organic and local food options. It is only when a mass market demand exists for healthy, safe, natural, and sustainable meat and seafood that systemic change could become possible.

More on food, health, and the environment:

Emily also wrote a post on this previously.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

6 thoughts on “Listeria and the food system”

  1. Maple Leaf forever
    No frenzied butt-covering for troubled meat-processing company

    The 100-mile diet is no panacea. Indeed, it brings its own set of problems. How do you monitor safe storage in small operations? What to do about big cities, where not everyone can mosey down to the farmers’ market for their weekly ration of vegetables?

    But we can be sure of this: In the wake of this outbreak, many more voices will sing the praises of local, non-processed foods. And many more Canadians will listen.

  2. You point up a big problem with “big ag” in particular, and globalized, centralized economies in general: with packing plants (or many other industries of your choice) becoming bigger, fewer and more centralized, the potential for one (relatively) small badness (whether disease or dangerous product fault) to be spread across huge geographic areas grows exponentially.

    I’ve never understood why one should cede control of life’s basics to large corporations, which, while ‘legal persons’, are often amoral ones. I often trust most those I can see for myself, and I don’t see why I should trust (even well-intentioned) corparate interests to act in my best interests

  3. Dispatches from the Fields: The trouble with small-scale farming
    Can sustainable farming provide a sustainable living?
    Posted by Stephanie Paige Ogburn

    Should small-scale farmers who grow organically and sell locally or regionally be able to make a middle-class living with farming as their sole source of income

    I’ve always answered this question with a fervent “yes,” at least from a philosophical perspective. But the answer to the follow-up question — “do they?” — is nearly always a resounding no.

    Sure, there are exceptions. In Southwest Colorado, I live in an immature market for small-scale, local food, so farmers here are probably doing worse on the whole due to lack of market penetration. (When you live in a rural area with low population, you can’t just sell to the top 1 or 2 percent of customers — you really have to have a widespread appeal in order to lift sales, since your population base is so much smaller than if you were selling to an urban center. And that depth of customer base takes a long time to build.) So here, out of say, 25 vegetable farmers I know selling at area markets, only one of them earns a full time living from her farming occupation.

  4. What absolutely amazes me about this event is that no one has realized how dumb an idea it is to sell pre cut luncheon meats, which for obvious reasons have much much larger surface areas on which bacteria can grow. It wouldn’t be a bad idea, in my opinion, to simply ban all pre cutting and mincing of meats (that would include ground meat as well).

  5. Harper government withholds listeriosis notes


    The Canadian Press

    February 22, 2009 at 1:56 PM EST

    OTTAWA — The Harper government has delayed for months the release of notes on conference calls held at the height of last summer’s deadly listeriosis outbreak — a lag some experts say breaks Ottawa’s own information laws.

    At issue is an Access to Information request by The Canadian Press to the Privy Council Office for “all transcripts and minutes” of the crucial exchanges last August and September.

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