by Janice Levangie
The ability of all Atlantic Canadians to access enough safe and nutritious food (food security) is key to healthy, resilient communities. Food shortages due to recent events such as floods, landslides, and the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted vulnerabilities of Canada’s food systems. Access to quality, locally produced food, including meat products, helps build resiliency. A shortage of options for abattoir services in some parts of Atlantic Canada needs to be tackled to improve food security in the region.
Most of the meat sold in Canadian grocery stores is not processed locally. Three very large centralized processing facilities in Alberta and Ontario process more than 95 percent of the beef in Canada! In Atlantic Canada, only Prince Edward Island has a federally licensed abattoir for beef.
Provincially inspected facilities are a great option for local livestock producers to sell their meat products but some areas lack access to these. For example, there are no abattoirs for red meat in Cape Breton.
The high-volume, fast-paced nature of the centralized facilities has been criticized as contributing to environmentally unsustainable practices and unsafe working conditions. COVID-19 outbreaks in Alberta beef packing plants in 2020 led to hundreds of infections and two deaths.
Centralization has also increased the challenges farmers face in accessing abattoir services, since shutdowns for any reason create bottlenecks and disarray for both farmers and consumers. There’s a gap between people who want to buy local, sustainable meat and farmers who want to deliver that product. Local abattoirs can help fill the gap.
Research for the National Farmers Union (NFU) found that access to local abattoirs providing custom slaughter and meat-cutting services directly benefits farmers and contributes spinoffs to the local community. Small to medium-sized farms and diversified operations with more sustainable practices (such as grass-fed, organic, and regenerative grazing systems) benefit from being able to directly market their product to consumers. Farmers benefit from direct marketing meat with higher margins compared to selling livestock to sales barns or feedlots that supply major processors.
Consumers benefit from accessing local, sustainable meat and building relationships with farmers. The community benefits from employment, tax dollars spent locally, and a more diverse rural economy.
Livestock benefit from shorter transportation, which improves animal welfare and often results in better quality meat. Transporting animals long distances stresses them and can result in “dark-cutting” meat that is much less saleable. Shorter supply chains also produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions and are less costly for farmers. So, having an abattoir in the area can be critical to a farm’s business viability and would benefit the whole community.
MOBILE AND MODULAR
So, what might help improve farmers’ access to abattoir services and meat processing in Atlantic Canada?
Two similar options are mobile abattoirs and stationary modular abattoirs. They’re used in British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec, and the Yukon, as well as several U.S. states.
Mobile units can be housed in transport trucks or trailers. Mobility can be attractive and such units have also proven capable of complying with regulations. However, some mobile abattoirs have been more financially successful than others.
Quebec provides examples of mobile abattoir successes and challenges. In the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region, a mobile abattoir with a trailer and two docking stations operated between 2005 and 2008. The number of farmers using it declined over time, possibly due to the distance needed to travel to the docking stations and coordination issues. However, another private mobile facility processing poultry operates in southwestern Quebec. This region is more densely populated and arguably has a more established market for local food.
In the Yukon, a mobile abattoir subsidized by the territorial government was introduced in 2006. It’s contained in a fifth-wheel trailer. Producers can book the unit for beef, bison, pork, elk, sheep, goats, and rabbits to be slaughtered, cooled, and transported in the unit. It’s been reported that producers were initially less receptive than anticipated, potentially due to the cost of the service. There have also been difficulties finding qualified operators to run the abattoir.
In British Columbia, several modular abattoirs serve remote, rural, and island communities. These operate from a fixed location, as the capital costs of a unit moving from farm to farm proved unsustainable.
Entrepreneurs or groups who might want to partner on starting up and operating a mobile abattoir should develop a solid business plan that considers regional demand for the meat, marketing the product as local and sustainable, potential financial support from various sources, and whether there are enough farmer clients to make the abattoir financially sustainable. Other considerations include setting up markets for the meat (including local butcher shops, restaurants, and the farm gate), finding skilled and reliable labour, and access to facilities for further processing and cold storage.
Another way to increase access to abattoir services and meat processing in Atlantic Canada is to consider changes to provincial regulations.
Meat safety regulations are intended to protect the public. In some cases, though, regulations add disproportionate burdens for smaller abattoirs but may not add extra safety. Regulatory burden can make or break a facility’s feasibility. Many abattoirs across the country have closed or struggled to be financially feasible following new provincial requirements.
Regulations differ by province, and research by the National Farmers Union identified provinces that have supported smaller, local operations through rational legislation and guidelines. There are some interesting examples worth considering in the Atlantic provinces.
Some provinces, including P.E.I., have only one tier of provincial inspection, so all meat sold on the Island must be inspected to the same level. Other provinces, such as Nova Scotia, have more intense inspection for larger facilities and less inspection for very localized, smaller-scale operations.
Other provinces have slightly different options that might be examples to consider.
In Alberta, a mobile butcher’s licence allows a mobile butcher to slaughter an individual’s animal on their own land. This allows for slaughter trucks that can operate on multiple farms efficiently and with lower capital costs. Skinning and evisceration happen on a crane outside the unit, and then further processing happens inside the unit. The meat is uninspected and not for sale (only for consumption by the animal’s owner and family). However, farmers can sell a live animal to a customer and assist them with conducting legal on-farm slaughter and on-farm cut and wrap.
In British Columbia, there are multiple tiers of inspection, with the smallest scale allowing producers to conduct limited licensed on-farm slaughter producing meat for sale, with requirements for training, an approved food safety plan, and premises inspection.
In Quebec, local slaughterhouse permits apply to slaughterhouses and meat processing facilities for non-wholesale purposes. This second tier of inspections is intended to allow farmers across Quebec access to nearby slaughter facilities and enable consumers to buy quality local foods. It simplifies many of the detailed requirements for regular larger-scale abattoirs in Quebec.
In provinces with only one tier of provincial inspection, changing regulations to include multiple tiers may enable smaller facilities to operate with less burdensome, more scale-appropriate regulations.
Changes in provincial regulations and legislation can be complex and time-consuming, but you might want to talk to your provincial representatives, either individually or as part of an industry group, to encourage amendments.
If you’re a livestock producer without a nearby abattoir or meat-processing facility, consider talking to your provincial representative about the possibilities of mobile abattoirs and regulatory changes in your province. It might not just improve your farm’s income, but also boost food security and resiliency in your community.
(Janice Levangie grew up on a mixed farm in Nova Scotia’s Antigonish County. She’s now an environmental engineer living in Kitchener, Ont. In 2021, she worked with the National Farmers Union as a livestock policy researcher, researching and preparing a report on abattoir regulations across Canada, which can be found at www.nfu.ca/publications/taking-stock-of-abattoir-regulations.)