Regulators closing the door on local meat

It is significant that the meat recalls of the past decade have rarely involved small plants.

May 17, 2013 | | Back Issues

The rapid decline of the small abattoir poses a threat to the future of farmland and local food that is every bit as serious as a mega quarry or urban sprawl. At the present rate of closure, the small plants that give residents the option of buying meat direct from a farm will disappear entirely from Ontario agriculture by the end of this decade.

About two years ago, Food In The Hills visited local abattoirs and reported that, in spite of the challenges presented by regulations and a difficult economy, the small plants were holding their own and the future for locally sourced meat looked bright. Since then, of the three plants featured in that story, Holly Park in Bolton and Metheral Meats in Dunedin have closed their doors. Only Stayner Meat Packers remains in business.

Metheral’s was widely regarded as one of the best-run small abattoirs in the province. Family owned and built new in 1991, it has been upgraded regularly as standards change. Until last December it processed 600 beef cattle and 3,000 lambs a year. Small plants have several real advantages over industrial plants – employee morale is higher and staff turnover much lower. Workers who enjoy their jobs tend to treat animals humanely and take pride in the finished product. And they all work in plain view of the same community where they live, which gives them added incentive to do good work. It is significant that the meat recalls of the past decade have rarely involved small plants.

To listen to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, we live in the best of all possible worlds. Local meat, they say, is freely available, carefully regulated and completely safe. Safe it may be, but availability is another matter. Small-scale livestock production is in free fall in Ontario. Rising grain and hay prices, sharply higher processing costs, and competition from box store meat retailers have reduced profit margins and put producers at a crossroads.

Meat inspection in Canada is divided between the Federal Government and the provinces. Any meat that crosses a provincial border for sale must be inspected in a federal plant. These are the high-volume factories run by Maple Leaf Foods, XL and Cargill, and they supply the grocery and restaurant chains of the nation, with most of the meat consumed in Canada. The small producer who wants to sell to his own customers must find a provincially inspected plant. Until a decade ago they dotted the landscape – more than 800 in Ontario in the 1970s, dropping to 500 in the 1990s, down to fewer than 130 today.

The provincial regulations were originally put in place to get farmers to stop slaughtering animals on the farm and take them to clean, professional and humane plants. For decades it was considered a duty of the provincial ministry to ensure farm communities had access to well-run local kill plants. But that has changed.

As an inspector told me when I picked up a few boxes of my own meat for a freezer order customer, “The system wasn’t meant to allow you to sell your own meat. It’s supposed to be just for your personal use.” That is not true, but it is becoming more the case as the attitude of regulators hardens toward the small producer.

They are making it clear that, in their view, consumers should buy their meat in a grocery store or restaurant, but nowhere else. They are tolerating farm sales of meat for the moment in Ontario, but every year there is an expensive new ear tag, a new transport rule, or a costly new packaging requirement. Regulators are slowly shutting the door on local meat processing and the way of life that once supported it.

A turning point for Neil Metheral happened when he phoned an inspector’s supervisor in Guelph to question one of the new rules. The reply he got was, “You don’t ask questions. You do what you are told.”

That attitude and the expense of the regulations wore him out. Now the plant sits empty, its 15 employees looking for work and some livestock producers in the community wondering if they should bother with farm sales.

“It’s a broken system and I don’t even know if you can fix it,” says Neil. “They don’t look at the plant itself. They just look at their regulation book.”

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