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Where's The Good Beef?

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By James Geneau

I, like many, remember the crusty old lady in 1984 who demanded more beef in her burgers from the famous Wendy's ad campaign. It was a classic, and we all laughed at the antics of 81 year old Clara Peller raising Hell at the competitor's counter when an over-sized bun was served with only the hint of a hamburger patty. Peller died in 1987, not from a lack of beef, but apparently old age. One thing we do know is that it was not from a widespread outbreak of tainted meat.

It has been an unfortunate week for food in Canada. As I write this, 12 people have died from Listeria monocytogenes outbreak from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto and another 26 cases have been confirmed. It is a Canada-wide food crisis, one that is causing many consumers to sit back and ask, "How could this happen?"  More importantly, people are asking themselves, "Where is the good beef?".

Well, according to the reports, the good beef is pretty hard to find. Even though the outbreak has been traced to the Maple Leaf plant in Toronto, the products are not isolated to their own brands. The industrial food processing system is a complex one, and many different brands have been impacted by this outbreak. From coast to coast, a number of private-label and well-known meat products have been recalled leaving people scared and confused. The recall list is now up to 220 different products and the impact of the infamous 97B code on products manufactured at the plant are common discussion at the water cooler.

While others spent the weekend looking in their freezers and refrigerators for the not so lucky winning number, I enjoyed a great grilled steak. I didn't need to look at the packaging and cross-reference it with a Web site advisory list; I have better things to do with my time. The reason is that none of the food in my fridge came from a processing plant. It was hand selected and cut at my butcher. Three days earlier, my dinner was feeding on grass and grains at an organic farm a mere one hour north of my home. I did not buy it because it was on sale or because it was easy to prepare. I bought it because it was fresh, I knew where it came from, and it tasted great!

It is funny. We spend a fortune on shoes, televisions, vacations, cars, and clothing. We fork out thousands to educate our kids, and live in the best neighbourhoods. But when it comes to what we eat, we often look at it as an inconvenience. It is something that as a society we have become accustomed to doing quickly and with the lowest cost possible. We care less about where our food comes from than we do our cars and clothing. But at the end of the day, who needs a new BMW when you are stuck in a hospital bed dying from Listeria monocytogenes?

It is strange how the majority of people living in North America view food. In recent years, this anti-food culture has started to change. More and more people are looking for local, sustainable, and good food. While a big driver has been environmental concerns, a more important reason should be our overall health as a living being. Food is a privilege, not a convenience. It should be wholesome and good for you. It should make you strong and help you fight diseases. This past weekend however, we learned that it can actually do the opposite.

So what does one do? Well, to start, you can start to make your food a priority again. If you buy your groceries based on a flyer and the lowest price, you are asking for trouble. That's not to say that good food is not affordable. What it means is that we all need to focus on where our food comes from, how it was prepared, and what will it do for your health - not how much of a dent it will make in your Caribbean cruise budget. Visit your local farmer's market or take a trip to the organic butcher. Talk to the owner and ask them where their food comes from. Buy it fresh and take some time to enjoy cooking it and more importantly, savouring it.

If one good thing comes from this tragic outbreak it could very well be the cultural shift of Canadian society towards the importance of good whole food. Imagine an entire society where the local butcher and farmer are celebrated for their excellence in food quality. One where we consider good and wholesome food to be the greatest luxury we can obtain. That would be wonderful in my opinion. After all, I enjoyed spending the afternoon in the warm August sun while others took inventory in their fridge. All I have to worry about is excess exposure to Vitamin D and premature aging of the skin. I can live with that.   



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