Cold Cuts: Maple Leaf Butchers Jobs and Food Security, but No-one Speaks Out

There will be no hogs in Hogtown’s future, but neither does there appear to be any squealing.

Toronto’s pre-eminence as a food processing center — the city has long been second only to Chicago in North American food manufacturing – took a hit last week when Maple Leaf Foods shed 1550 jobs from its Canada-wide workforce. Toronto’s plant employing over 300 workers was one of 12 shutdowns ordered by the powerful food conglomerate as it moves to centralize operations in five super-sized slaughterhouses, bakeries and distribution centers.

Say what you want about rising public awareness and passion for food, but the corporate moves – with all the earmarks of decisions driven by and for what the world is now calling “the one per cent” – was announced to dead silence from the 99 per cent. The usual commentators – city officials, opposition critics, union leaders, environmentalists, public health advocates, food enthusiasts, to name the most obvious – don’t recognize all the meaty public interest issues involved here.

Since food is a necessity of personal and community life, logic supports the idea that food cannot be treated like just any other widget or commodity belonging to any old corporation and covered by any casual government regulations. This silence of the lambs treatment of unilateral corporate power indicates that there is still only a dawning sense of the public interest and duty of care obligations of this sector of the economy, and only a preliminary sense within the food movement that it needs to be a force for political intervention on issues of the day.

Let’s start this review of no-shows with Ontario’s opposition parties.

Though the NDP is led by a Hamiltonian who might be loathe to denounce a corporate restructuring which adds 1200 new jobs to her region, an alert opposition should question the role of the Ontario Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Rural Affairs in this affair.

OMAFRA staff functioned basically as real estate brokers for Maple Leaf Foods as it started its search for alternate sites some ten months ago, in January. Without advising city officials or the general public , ministry staff provided liaisons with economic development teams from 24 local governments bidding for rights to the new plant and jobs, according to reports in the Hamilton Spectator. Elected officials in
Hamilton were given one hour prior to the public media announcement to read and rubber stamp the agreement.

Silence too from public health officials, despite the supersized corporation’s 2008 association with a listeria outbreak killing over 20 people. One wouldn’t think a corporation devoted to a product line based on animal fat and empty carbs – Maple Leaf is a leading producer of hot dogs, bacon, bread and baked goods – would get such hands-off treatment.

Public health is increasingly attentive to the need for multiple points of access to ensure food security in face of emergencies, a concern that doesn’t square easily with corporate centralization of manufacturing and distribution hubs, which in turn require centralization by all the farmers and other suppliers of inputs to these centers. Operations in four provinces were shut down by Maple Leaf’s re-org – a significant area of land and large number of people denied access to critical food infrastructure.

Farm leaders have been silent, despite the fact that meat-packing centralization inevitably makes sales more difficult for smaller farmers and ranchers, who need nearby slaughterhouses and some alternative to corporate behemoths dictating livestock prices.

Ready access to nearby processors has become an important priority for animal welfare crusaders, since it is the trip from farm to slaughterhouse that is most stressful for animals – the longer, the more painful. Yet silence here too.

Those with stereotypes about unions might expect a blast denouncing the human costs of centralization and the loss of decent-paying jobs in the midst of a recession, but silence again reigns supreme.

Teachers, who rarely feel shy to talk about public interest issues, have been shy to talk of the role of their pension fund in financing the original Maple Leaf rise to national corporate dominance during the 1990s, or the recent sale of Teachers fund shares that created space for US hedge fund, West Face Capital, which has pressed Maple Leaf management for increased company profits and competitiveness
(aka cuts).

Environmentalists might ask about corporate rights to centralize distribution without regard for increases to the amount of transportation required in the food system – a significant portion of global warming emissions in the food sector.

And from the food movement – if I may throw a tough question my way, given my position in several food orgs – is there a better occasion to demand that the federal government pull out longstanding laws against monopoly power in the food industry. Governments treat these anti-trust laws as dead letters, but they’re all important to domestic food security and food sovereignty.

The day after Maple Leaf’s job butchering announcement, Carolyn Steel, author of Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives, came to speak in Toronto. Arguably the most imaginative mind in the food studies field, Steel notes that public officials were always held responsible for food sufficiency until the late 1800s, when new ocean freighters and extensive railway networks made food accessible from many parts of a country and the world. At that point, the invisible hand of an unregulated marketplace met the “invisible land” of citified societies lacking mindfulness of their absolute dependence on food. The invisibility of food issues followed.

Point noted and taken.

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