Where’s the Alberta beef?

The shocking truth about Stampede eats

The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth begins again this week. The event is almost synonymous with Calgary and yet the majority of the food served there isn’t local; most notably Alberta’s signature agricultural product.

Beyond the 10 days in July when Stampeding takes over our city the Calgary Stampede organization contributes year-round facilities products services and agricultural programs that cultivate an understanding of the agricultural industry. Stampede Park hosts over a thousand events a year ranging from trade shows to conferences and weddings. Through its food and beverage department executive chef Derek Dale frequently feeds up to 10000 people in a day at Stampede Park functions. Outside the park 46 volunteer committees work year-round contributing to various groups and community events throughout Southern Alberta.

It was great news when the Calgary Stampede organization launched a new food service initiative back in February dubbed “Grown Right. Here.” The program was designed to support Alberta growers and the agriculture industry in our province falling right in line with the Stampede mandate to preserve and promote our western heritage and values. It means that wherever possible local and regional products will be used: MacKay’s ice cream; black-currant products from Kayben Farms; Fairwinds Farm goat cheese; oils and pancake mixes from Highwood Crossing; Dri-view Farms lamb; and Valta bison. Alberta-made foods are added to menus and fed year-round to the Stampede’s external catering clients — not exclusively but it is a forward-thinking move that prioritizes growth and sustainability in our city and province.

However to the average Calgarian the words “the Calgary Stampede” refer to the event not the organization. The busiest and most celebrated time of year remains those 10 days in July when we receive over a million visitors from all over the world.

The new initiative is promoted as an opportunity for the Stampede to showcase local producers and their products to those million or so guests. (In 2007 the gate admission totaled 1.25 million.) Unfortunately the average visitor to the Stampede will see very few Alberta products. Those in premium seating areas such as Lazy S and Ranahans and owners of infield suites will be fed by the Stampede’s food and beverage department and will see some of the aforementioned products on the menu. The midway however which generates food-sales revenue in numbers second only to admissions is where most of the Stampede’s food vendors are represented.

Of course food associated with the Stampede is most often midway food — corn dogs mini doughnuts barbecue beef on a bun burgers ice cream cotton candy anything deep-fried or on a stick. The gross-out exceptionally-bad-for-you factor definitely comes into play when choosing new food products for the Stampede; new edibles on the grounds this year include deep-fried Oreos (made with U.S. Oreos which are apparently crispier than our Canadian Oreos) deep-fried Twinkies pizza on a stick New-Orleans-style beignets bubble tea and London broil (a different version of beef-on-a-bun that comes to us from a Florida concession).

The vast majority of these foods are served up by travelling vendors who come from the states; Calgary is just a stop on their tour of North American midways. Most vendors bring their product with them so when the vendor comes from Florida the beef comes from their supplier.

Why then are there not more Alberta products and processors neighbouring the usual midway concessions? In many cases local producers are unable to keep up with the demand (the Stampede sees almost 150000 visitors a day) and often can’t afford the average $125000 it costs for a sufficiently lit-up and flashy midway booth. Other times there are conflicts between local products and official Stampede sponsors and suppliers (which often have exclusive rights) such as Breyers Labatt Bulls-Eye and Maple Leaf.

Downstairs in the Big Four building local eateries such as Wicked Wedge Billingsgate Fish & Chips The Holy Grill and Palace of Eats do have outlets in The Range a cool licensed area built by a movie-set company to look like a town in the Old West. The Range is more accessible to local businesses than the outdoor midway because the booths have already been built — all they need to bring in is equipment and product.

At the back of the room is a Stampede-run concession that sells its famous burgers which are by far the biggest sellers on The Range. These Official Calgary Stampede burgers are also sold by Stampede-owned concessions at Nashville North the Cookshack the Corral the Round-Up Centre and the Grandstand and are available in frozen packages at Co-op Zellers and other food stores so you can “take home the authentic taste of an Alberta tradition.” The only problem is the official Calgary Stampede burgers aren’t made with Alberta beef; they are a product of Centennial / New Food Classics who get beef from all over. While the manufacturer says that the Stampede burgers have been made with Canadian beef since the BSE scare a few years ago the three beef providers it lists on its website are from New Zealand and Wichita Kansas.

During Stampede almost 77000 hamburgers are consumed about 27000 beef on a bun and over 30000 steaks. The other beef products are made by Bridge Brand and are not necessarily from Alberta either. Lori Creech communications manager for Alberta Beef Producers was surprised to hear that the official Stampede burger products were not made with Alberta beef.

“The Calgary Stampede represents Calgary and Alberta and the very best we have to offer; likewise Alberta beef has a very proud heritage and history” she says. “The Stampede has been very supportive of the beef industry in Alberta; the two have sort of been married to each other for years.” She agrees that when most of the world hears “Alberta” beef is one of the most common associations. “It would be nice if the beef served at Stampede was Alberta beef.”

I have always been a fan of the Stampede; it has created an award-winning brand and fostered lasting relationships with the community and with industry putting it in a particularly strong position to promote Alberta beef (and bison) producers to a world audience. While it does so from an agricultural perspective it would seem that the best way to support such an industry would be to sell its products.

And from a moral standpoint it simply seems sacrilegious to create an official Calgary Stampede burger made with anything but Alberta beef. Certainly there is enough in Alberta to meet the 10-day demand.

What does that say about our western values?