The Ministry of Agriculture has recently released an Intentions Paper on “Rural Slaughter Modernization.” We are very excited to see the MoA tackling the complex issues facing the meat processing sector in BC and welcome the opportunity to influence the thinking of the MoA as they work to address the critical policies, regulations, and financial incentives that will be necessary to make urgent, meaningful change.
BC is facing a meat processing crisis; current provincial policy and regulatory structures have created a situation in which, despite the high demand for local, sustainable, and niche meat products, there is a critical abattoir and cut/wrap capacity issue. Abattoirs are an absolutely essential feature of a vibrant and resilient small-scale meat system, and right now the lack of reliable access to abattoirs is the main roadblock facing existing producers. Although the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated this crisis, it should be emphasized that this problem has existed for many years.
It should also be noted that although Covid-19 has newly revealed to many people the vulnerabilities in BC’s meat industry, the BC government has been consulting with stakeholders in the industry for years and is very well aware of the problems. Fortunately, MoA is well poised to take swift and strategic action at this time, as they have recently undergone a series of directly relevant consultation processes with stakeholders in the industry. While we support ongoing consultation and are happy to see that producers and consumers are again being offered the opportunity to provide feedback, the Ministry should have enough information from previous consultations to make informed, time-sensitive decisions in the meantime while continuing to gather responses.
What follows is an exploration of the key dynamics facing farmers, abattoirs, and consumers in BC, as well as our proposed solutions to the problem. This report is the result of our extensive consultations with producers and stakeholders in the industry.
To understand the context in BC, it is imperative to understand the wider national dynamic. The Canadian meat processing industry is dominated by excessive ownership and geographic concentration. Today, nearly all of the beef sold in Canadian grocery stores is processed in only three, high-volume, high-throughput meat packing plants, owned by Cargill and JBS. This is a clear bottleneck in the industry that allows these two multinational corporations to have undue influence over the price of cattle paid to farmers and the price of beef paid by consumers in the grocery store. If compromised (as it was when Covid-19 spread in the plants), it immediately leaves the entire Canadian meat industry in disarray, raising questions about the food security of consumers, and the financial integrity of producers who are dependent on the plants. Understanding this makes it explicitly clear why an integral, diverse, and local meat processing network is so urgently needed in BC to ensure food security for British Columbians, and financial security for provincial livestock producers.
The landscape of provincial meat processing in BC shifted after 2004 as changes to the slaughter regime were introduced to standardize food safety and slaughter protocols on a national level. The full implementation of these changes occurred in 2007 and caused a restructuring of the sector. Prior to this shift, there were over 300 facilities serving rural communities and livestock producers. After 2007, there were only 13 provincially inspected plants. In 2010, Class D and E rural slaughter licenses were introduced to support underserved producers in some rural areas by allowing a small number of livestock to be processed under less stringent regulatory standards. Currently, a lack of inspectors in the province means that some Class A and B facilities are unable to operate at full capacity.
Access to poultry processing is also a significant challenge for small-scale producers. All large scale processing facilities are designed to serve producers who exist within supply management and are not able to accommodate small flocks. Small poultry processors play a very vital role and are currently lacking in BC.
Today the abattoir business is notoriously fragile, with abattoirs frequently going in and out of business due to the seasonal nature of the business, low margins, an unreliable (or nonexistent) labor pool, and high operating costs. Furthermore, many are aging-out of the business. Farmers are not able to rely on their abattoir being accessible year after year, leaving operators vulnerable to their entire business model being compromised. The challenges BC farmers are facing to get their meat processed today is placing tremendous financial and time stress on already over-extended farmers. Many farmers in the province are driving 2-6 hrs to transport livestock to abattoirs (we have heard stories of 14 hr trips this fall). The lengths of these drives are increasingly untenable. It is not safe for already exhausted farmers to be forced to drive on treacherous highways in poor weather conditions just to process their animals. Additionally, there is a strong animal welfare concern with such long transports, as well as an increasing carbon footprint being forced upon small-scale farmers.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exerted even more pressure on an already maxed system. There has been an increase in the number of British Columbians raising livestock for home consumption, an increase in hunters needing cut and wrap, new demand from producers who are transitioning some of their stock away from commercial production (sending calves to the stockyard) to direct marketing in response to Covid-19, and increased demand from long-term producers that have increased production due to post-Covid consumer demand. As a result, abattoirs across the province are already fully-booked for 2020, and far into 2021. Some producers are experiencing their fall 2020 bookings being cancelled altogether. Since the spring, abattoir operators have experienced unprecedented demand, leaving them exhausted and struggling to keep up. There are many livestock that will be slaughtered with no oversight this fall due to a lack of alternatives. Furthermore, many farmers and ranchers will miss out on the unprecedented opportunity the Covid-19 pandemic has created, to grow their business and contribute to their local economies and food security. Without access to slaughter and processing services, these opportunities will continue to be lost.
Small-scale meat producers’ entire business model depends on being able to reliably kill and process the livestock they have raised. We must act now to lay the groundwork for a more resilient, climate-friendly, financially-prosperous meat sector in BC. We are excited to see that the MoA is working to tackle this crisis and want to take this opportunity to articulate a proposed path of action.
- Immediate On-Farm Slaughter + Cut/Wrap Capacity Emergency Measures
- The excess livestock this fall will be slaughtered one way or another. The province would be wise to instigate an emergency measure that legalizes on-farm slaughter so that it can track what will happen either way.
- To cope with the increase in animals being slaughtered, there needs to be incentives for local butcher facilitates to increase staff hours and cooler space in order to process these animals. This could look like temporary cold storage being rented, and temporary accommodation being provided for temporary staff.
- Re-envisioning of Licensing
- Oversight needs to match the risk. The food contamination risks for large operations are different from those of small scale farms and processors. The current license structure needs to be updated to reflect the needs of this emerging market and regulated in a manner that is proportionate to the lower risk, and the increased traceability, of the shorter food chain created by small-scale agriculture and direct-to-consumer marketing. As well, appropriate education and support should be provided for all scales of processors.
- Regional processing and distribution restrictions must be lifted.
- Alternate inspection methods
- Virtual inspection should be implemented to facilitate greater access to inspection services for smaller, lower risk operations. This would also allow for fewer inspectors to inspect more animals.
- Support and Incentivize New Cut/Wrap Facilities
- Offer assistance in upgrading and refurbishing existing facilities.
- Create bursaries to support staff training.
- Financial and logistical support to enable new operators to bring new facilities online as quickly as possible.
- We need to create a thriving and skilled labor force. MoA can leverage the fact that BC is one of the only provinces that recognizes butchery as a skilled trade, to attract students and tradespeople to meet the demand for skilled butchers in BC.
- Update the existing meat processing program at TRU, and develop new butchery and slaughter programs that cater to the growing niche market for farm-to-table meat products, by focusing on the development of whole animal butchery skills and value-added butchery services.
- Create bursaries and other incentives for new butchers to access education, and to employers to offer apprenticeships. To make slaughter and butchery a more desirable career path, wage subsidies should be strongly considered.
It should be noted that all action taken by the MoA must be cost-effective for farmers.
What does a vibrant small-scale meat industry offer to British Columbians?
- Climate Change
- Access to local abattoirs:
- facilitates grass-finished meat and regenerative grazing systems, maximizing soil-building and biodiversity benefits
- underpins efforts to reposition meat away from a cheap commodity protein toward a high-quality, high-enjoyment food–a product with its own terroir. This can mean that farmers have higher margins, they can make a living on fewer animals, and thus the number of animals in the province (and attendant emissions) can fall slightly even as incomes increase.
- foster direct farmer-eater relationships that can have the same margin-enhancing effects
- make possible short supply chains that reduce transport emissions.
- make possible identity preservation and labeling systems that highlight low-emission and sustainable meat, further enhancing margins, and giving consumers the capacity to choose lower-emission options.
- Access to local abattoirs:
- Food Security and Covid Recovery
- Covid-19 has made many people confront the fragility of our globalized food system. As over 95% of beef on BC grocery shelves comes from 3 out-of-province plants, it is essential to the food security of British Columbians that immediate action be taken to ensure access to local meat processing. If we want food security in the province it is imperative that farmers and consumers are not beholden to two multinational corporations.
- Local Economies and Rural Community Development
- The increase in demand for locally produced food, particularly meat, has the makings of an economic success story. Meat processing, and the diverse livestock and livestock-adjacent business that will flourish as a result of their presence, have the possibility to be an emerging source of local prosperity in struggling, rural BC communities.
- Animal Welfare
- Consumers are increasingly concerned about animal welfare. Allowing for on-farm slaughter, and decreasing the distances between farm and abattoir is a key step to improving animal welfare.
We need to address the mounting meat-processing crisis and ensure positive and immediate actions are not thwarted. A thriving and resilient meat processing industry will serve the economic, nutritional, social, community development, food production, and climate change goals of all British Columbians.
By Freya Kellet, NFU Climate Change Coordinator – BC