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.
Photos by Cathryn Wellner
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