E. coli, food security, and the ethics of meat production

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A new labour studies course entitled “Advocacy and Animal Rights,” will begin in January 2013, and will examine the issue of food ethics.

The course came out of Canada’s largest meat recall at Alberta’s XL Foods in September. The discovery of beef contaminated by E. coli 0157:H7 prompted the federal government to recall more than 1,500 meat products in all 10 provinces and 41 U.S. states.

No one died due to the recall, but the strain of E. coli bacteria caused severe illness including diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach cramping.

The tainted meat crisis raised a number of troubling questions among critics. The most obvious is food safety. Why did it take the federal government 18 days to issue a massive food recall? Was it concerned about the health of the industry or the health of consumers?

Is it possible to guarantee that meat is safe to eat when it’s produced at such a large scale, such as the XL plant, which processes one-third of all Canadian beef and slaughters 4,500 cows every day?

The XL Foods recall also raised questions about the working conditions of those who slaughter and process animals. The plant’s workforce of 2,200 includes a significant number of temporary foreign workers, which means the employer can pay them less and provide fewer rights and protections than the law requires for other workers.

The XL Foods case sheds light on the role of a union. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which has an established record of helping migrant and temporary workers get the rights they deserve, represents these workers.

What does the XL recall tell us about factory farming? In modern animal agribusiness systems (factory farms), animals are confined in feedlots or in sheds with no access to the outdoors and often no natural light. These animals are confined in very close quarters, subjected to stress, and their immune systems are compromised, factors that encourage the spread of diseases such as E. coli.

According to scientific studies, animals are complex beings with the capacity to experience emotions similar to ours such as joy, distress, and even depression. Scientific evidence pertaining to this was reflected in the recent Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, signed by a group of leading neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists, cognitive scientists, and computational neuroscientists, in the presence of the world-famous physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking. The scientists concluded that animals are just as “conscious and aware” as humans.

These questions and other issues will be explored in depth in the new course this coming winter semester.

For more information or to register, please contact Kyla Shead, Labour Studies Program 474-8356 or labour_studies@umanitoba.ca.