Just outside of Duncan, on Vancouver Island, a small, family-owned slaughterhouse processed sheep, pigs and a few cattle. The owner had learned the trade from his father and still drove the 1960 stock truck he had inherited.
The butcher respected animals. When they were dropped off at his abattoir, they went into holding pens with fresh bedding, clean water and familiar feed. They stayed there until they had recovered from the stress caused by the short journey from nearby farms. When they were calm, he dispatched them quickly, one at a time, away from the sound or smell of those still waiting.
Contamination was never linked to the operation. The farmers who came to him were satisfied. So were their customers.
B.C. Repairs a System That Was Not Broken
None of that mattered when the provincial government declared that by September 2007, every abattoir in British Columbia would have to comply with regulations that matched those in place at federally inspected plants. Their announcement claimed, “With a modern meat inspection system in place across the province, the meat and livestock industry will enjoy greater certainty, consumer confidence and growth opportunities.”
I remember trying to track down evidence that the small abattoirs were responsible for any of the contamination that had sickened consumers. Plenty of fingers pointed at the national and international meat processors, such as Cargill, Tyson and Maple Leaf. None pointed at the small abattoirs. That does not mean every small abattoir was a model of high standards, but in the communities they served, bad actors had no place to hide. When word got around, they found themselves without customers.
Big Setback for Small Producers
When the new regulations came into full force in 2007, the province contracted with the BC Food Processors Association to assist slaughterhouses with the construction and food safety plans now required. Most simply closed their doors. By July 2010, there were only 37 inspected abattoirs and two mobile units in the entire province.
A few dozen abattoirs near a large enough supply of livestock to make a business case sank hundreds of thousands of dollars into upgrades. Most of the mom-and-pop operations went out of business. Many farmers on smallholdings sold off flocks or herds. Rural communities were disrupted as feed stores, equipment dealers and livestock auctions lost business.
Large slaughterhouses already set up for inter-provincial and international trade were not interested in processing small lots of animals. Farmers were not interested in trucking their animals long distances, paying higher costs and being uncertain whether they would get back meat from the same animals they shipped.
No Wins in an Already Hard-Pressed Farming Sector
Small-scale producers and their communities mounted a campaign against the new regulations. The province went back to the drawing board. Acknowledging the changes in meat regulations had caused serious impacts, the province relaxed the rules to permit “farm-gate sales.” Slaughterhouses that had sunk thousands of dollars on required upgrades accused the government of undercutting them after first pushing them deeply into debt.
Now the federal government has thrown another spanner into the works. In order to shave a few million dollars off their budget, they have announced they will end federal inspections of meat plants in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency will still inspect federally regulated plants, but they will no longer provide inspectors for the meat-packing facilities that do not sell meat out of province. The three provinces have eighteen months to train and hire new inspectors.
That has the people who have done the upgrades worried. After going deeply into debt to comply with the new system, they fear the provincial response may be too little, too slow and too late to keep them in business.
New Worries and What the Feds Already Knew
According to the Vancouver Sun, “In 2010 the province paid $1.1 million to the CFIA, representing only 40 per cent of inspection costs. To match the federal program model, B.C. would have to more than double its budget.”
Red flags are popping up everywhere. The union representing federal food safety inspectors is warning consumers the move will mean less food safety. The provincial governments are issuing statements that they are quite capable of providing the necessary training and oversight. The federal New Democrats are lambasting the Conservative government.
Documents show the feds knew this was coming years ago. While British Columbia was dismantling an abattoir system already handling small-scale, in-province meat processing without compromising public safety, the federal government was already planning to pull back on inspections.
The Vancouver Sun reports, “According to a confidential Treasury Board document dated May 2008 and obtained by Postmedia News two months later, the decision to eliminate the federal inspection of meat slaughterhouses in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and B.C. had already been signed off by the Treasury Board, but a cabinet committee needed to approve a detailed implementation plan, ‘including risk mitigation and communication strategies.’”
A listeriosis outbreak in summer 2008 put the plan on hold. Now B.C. has until 2014 to gear up for full oversight of provincial abattoirsósomething it already was doing before the big upheaval.
Business As Usual – Little Guys and Consumers to Pick Up the Pieces
Once again, the people most affectedóthe small producers who provide a measure of local food security and the customers who want the best possible foodówill have the least say. They will be outshouted by those who decide how they should operate without weighing, or even understanding, the consequences.
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Photos by Cathryn Wellner