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Jan/Feb 2005 – Throwing Out the Baby Beef with the Bathwater

Six of us had just tucked into a table-groaning spread of barbecued lamb and roast potatoes when Reg, a lanky farmer in the community I was visiting, mentioned that the local slaughterhouse might close “in a year or two.”

Forks poised to mouths, hands clasping dinner rolls, my hosts and their friends looked like a flock of chickens frozen by a hawk’s shadow. The two-day a week operation, down the road from Reg’s place, is a fulcrum in his rural economy. They are steady buyers for lamb, thus keeping up cash flow for the larger farms, and will custom kill for small farmers who want to eat or market their own lamb. The slaughterhouse’s closure would be no less dramatic than severe climate change. Faced with trucking sheep 100 kilometers or more, many small farmers (me included) would either get out of livestock altogether, or reduce the flock to a size only required for self-sufficiency. Without the income from sheep, the viability of keeping fields only for hay production is reduced. No sheep, no hay; soon the farm equipment infrastructure (manure spreaders, custom baling etc.) vanishes and farmers are left with overgrown fields and fewer farmers.

All for want of a thriving local slaughterhouse.

The situation in Reg’s community is typical across Canada. Pending or, in some cases, recently enacted provincial legislation designed to satisfy hyper-exacting, export-level standards is threatening to burden small abattoirs with impossible operational and infrastructure demands. Many local operators—Reg’s included—are at the stage where they want to retire and can’t interest anyone in taking over a business with an uncertain future and/or can’t warrant a massive financial reinvestment in facilities.

As you’ll see in the stories that start on page 36, we are covering this subject from several angles. Jeffrey Carter details the concerns small operators in Ontario have about the forthcoming changes in the wake of the Haines Report of the Meat Regulatory and Inspection Review, with additional notes about the situation in BC, where the government has already enacted changes to meat inspection regulations. In keeping with Small Farm Canada’s policy not to write about a problem without offering at least some solutions, we also profile two small processors, a successful young Tilbury, Ontario abattoir operator and a PEI farmer with an on-farm butcher shop who is considering adding an abattoir to his operation. So the news isn’t all bad.

While we intend to cover this dynamic story in future issues, it is already clear to me that the interests of small abattoir operators, and the small farmers who support them, have been ignored. Remember: until 2003, small-scale livestock farmers supported a reasonably sturdy national infrastructure of local abattoirs. Bigger producers sent livestock across the border. Then a BSE cow was discovered in Alberta and an Ontario processor was found to be processing downer cows. What happened? The border slammed shut and provincial governments, in a rush to achieve international standards, imposed one-size-fits-all regulations on all abattoirs—whether they make sense in the context of an operation’s size or not. The baby beef got thrown out with the bathwater.

How these recently enacted and about-to-be enacted meat processing regulations ultimately affect small slaughterhouses depends on how vigorously governments interpret the rules. So far the process (if you can call it that) is leaving a bad taste in our mouths.