End of slaughterhouses would benefit workers and consumers – but even COVID-19 is unlikely to force change

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Better prices for farmers. Better quality meat for consumers. Improvement of conditions for workers on the production line.These are some of the benefits that farmers and experts believe could come from rethinking Canada’s dependence on a few massive slaughterhouses and opening smaller meat processing facilities across the country – a suggestion that arose when the coronavirus forced the closure of certain plants in North America.

Building local meat processing capacity is no easy task, especially in Manitoba, where most beef producers rely on plants in Ontario or Alberta that slaughter thousands of animals a day, said Clair Scott, who runs a beef farm with his family near Boissevain. , in southwestern Manitoba.

“I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but it’s quite difficult,” said Scott.

As in many industries, the COVID-19 pandemic has left its mark on meat processing in Canada, raising the question of whether there is a way to do it differently.

Meat packaging facilities in North America, where employees work at breakneck speed in tight quarters, have become hot spots for the disease caused by the new coronavirus. When the virus entered their production lines, many of these factories had to temporarily close, bottlenecks in slaughter capacity and uncertainty in the industry.

“When things go wrong, when we have big players, they go wrong,” said Scott. “When things go wrong, it’s hard to deal with. “

Farmers lose money

For Scott, this meant reducing the size of his farm for fear that he could not sell his animals in the fall. He brought about 1,500 cattle to his feedlot this spring – less than a third of his usual 5,000. The animals were each about $ 200 cheaper than usual, but this deal was still not enough for him to take the risk of buying more.

“We weren’t going to take a chance, that’s for sure,” he said.

Bill Campbell, another Manitoba cattle producer, said he also felt the pressure of the pandemic on the industry, as animal prices fell 30%. He said in the past few weeks he had sold 45 yearlings, steers and heifers and lost about $ 400 on each, nearly $ 20,000 less than he expected.

“It’s a bit tight. You know, it’s a good Christmas. “

Bill Campbell is President of Keystone Agricultural Producers in Manitoba. He also grows south of Brandon, Man. (Riley Laychuk / CBC)

Campbell, who is also president of Keystone Agricultural Producers, said he is cutting costs where he can and looks forward to seeing how things go this fall.

“Now we see some risks of putting all of our eggs in one basket,” he said.

Campbell said the pandemic had prompted him to wonder what a path might look like with greater local meat processing capacity in Manitoba.

On the one hand, farmers would save money on transportation costs by not having to ship animals to another province.

Right now, it costs about 10 cents a pound – about $ 150 for a typical 1,500 pound animal – to ship livestock from Manitoba to Alberta, he said.

Campbell said opening small local processing facilities could create more competition, giving farmers like him better prices for their animals. He added that this could also help producers to monitor the quality of their meat more closely.

“I always cringe when people tell me they have had a bad experience with beef. And so [I wonder] what happened to this product along the way that compromised that quality, “he said. If we have more control over the quality of locally produced beef, we may be able to reduce those impacts. ”

Barriers to making change

Food policy expert Sarah Berger Richardson said the smaller facilities would also have fewer employees and slower production chains, which could improve the safety of workers.

” [In a smaller facility], workers may not have to work at the same rapid pace as they do in a facility that treats 4,000 animals a day, “said Berger Richardson, assistant professor in the civil law section of the Faculty of Law. ‘University of Ottawa.

“Workers have more time to react and react if they see something is wrong. They do not run against the clock or a whistling production line. ”

A major obstacle to the creation of new local facilities is government regulation.

These include labels needed to identify each animal, specifications for items such as wall height and cooling capacity, and an obligation to remove body parts like nerves and spinal cord to eliminate the risk. bovine spongiform encephalopathy (or mad cow disease).

Slaughterhouses in Canada must comply with government regulations, including the requirement to remove body parts such as nerves and spinal cord to eliminate the risk of mad cow disease. Food policy expert Sarah Berger Richardson said some of these regulations make it harder for small processors to survive. (Ben Nelms / CBC)

The rules are crucial to ensuring the safety of processed meat in Canada, but they can be difficult to follow for small establishments and may not all be equally necessary in abattoirs of all sizes, said Berger Richardson.

In order for the small facilities to really have a chance of survival, the government should probably also inject money, she said.

“It really takes a lot of different people to come together and think about this collectively and not in the usual government silos. ”

She said these changes would likely result in more expensive meat, which could push people to introduce more vegetable protein into their diet.

But for companies operating Canada’s major slaughterhouses, the matter is purely economic, said Ryan Cardwell, associate professor in the department of agricultural economics at the University of Manitoba. Despite the risk of COVID-19, it is still cheaper to treat large numbers of animals in one large facility than to kill the same number in smaller sites across the country, he said.

“So unless the costing changes, the processors won’t decide to do it,” said Cardwell. “They will stick to large processing plants unless the risks of the virus infecting people in a large plant cannot be addressed.”

Despite the risk of COVID-19, it is still cheaper to treat a large number of animals in a single large facility than to kill the same number in smaller sites across the country, said the professor of agricultural economics. Ryan Cardwell. (Bryan Eneas / CBC)

Cardwell said that although COVID-19 has caused disruption to industry worldwide, the Canadian food system has weathered well – so unless the pandemic drags on, it does not expect or recommend no major changes.

“If in two years we don’t have a vaccine or if we don’t have collective immunity or if we still see these waves of great cycles of infection, then maybe companies would be encouraged to do things differently, “he said.

“In terms of an instinctive response to the current pandemic, I would like to warn against this. “

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