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May/June 2008 – 65 million, 30 & 7

Two events this spring, one local, the other international, clarified the reason behind changes to Canadian meat inspection regulations, and the effect of the changes on small farmers in Canada. The first event was federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz’ reaction to US meat packing giant Westland/Hallmark Meat Co’s recall of 65 million kilograms of beef. The voluntary recall, you may remember, was prompted by evidence that the California firm had processed “downer” cows without testing for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). Evidence included videotape of processing line employees ramming water hoses up the downed cow’s noses in a grotesque version of animal waterboarding.

What was Ritz’ reaction to these gross violations of regulations? Nothing. Not a word.

Yet in a way he said so very much by keeping his mouth shut. Until now I’ve incompletely subscribed to the notion that the basis of the new meat inspection regulations (that are being implemented with such harmful effects on small farmers) were rooted in the desire of Canadian agribusiness beef to have assured access into the US. That interpretation seemed too cynical. Surely there is some concern on the part of governments for people’s health? That’s what CFIA officials have repeatedly said.

But if that was really the case wouldn’t Ritz be vigorously condemning the USDA meat inspection system for allowing such a large-scale and flagrant violation? A vigilant minister concerned with the health of Canadians would be voicing his concern that Canadians were exposed to meat from animals that had not only been grossly abused but that had not been screened for BSE. Wouldn’t he?

The alternative explanation is that trade, not health, was behind the government changing inspection standards. By calling the USDA to account the Minister would be endangering access to US markets.

From the point of view of small farmers, and the Canadian consumer, the situation amounted to a one question, two-answer multiple-choice exam that Ritz flunked. Badly.

The other event was much more local. The operator of one of the few local licensed slaughterhouses announced that, having spent $100,000 in meeting new government regulations, his bookings were down. That’s correct. Down. The day I spoke with him he had processed just seven pigs and sent his hired help home early. Prior to upgrading his facility he might expect 30 pigs.

What happened? The operators of competing, unlicensed, facilities had “lawyered” their way around slaughterhouse regulations; namely they pre-sold their livestock to consumers, much as sellers of raw milk offer shares in their dairy cows. Technically, all the unlicensed slaughterhouses were doing was processing animals for home consumption. And these facilities, which used to be inspected by local health authorities prior to the new regulations, are now inspected by no one. There is no requirement for a CFIA inspector to be on site, no need for high-cost upgrades.

Although I’m pleased to see farmers thinking like weasels instead of acting like lambs, I am deeply concerned about where it is leading.

Put the two events together, and I can’t help but feel like the passenger in hijacked plane. Our pilot is either asleep at the controls or, worse, has a wrongheaded sense of direction.