Better prices for farmers. Higher-quality meat for consumers. Improved conditions for workers on the production line.
Those are some of the benefits farmers and experts say could come from rethinking Canada’s reliance on a few massive slaughterhouses and opening smaller meat-processing facilities across the country — a suggestion that’s arisen as coronavirus forced the shutdown of some plants in North America.
Building local capacity for processing meat isn’t an easy task, especially in Manitoba, where most beef farmers 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 pretty tough,” Scott said.
As in many industries, the COVID-19 pandemic has left its mark on meat processing in Canada, raising questions about whether there’s a way to do things differently.
Meat-packing facilities across North America, where employees work at breakneck speeds in close quarters, became hot spots for the illness caused by the new coronavirus. When the virus made its way to their production lines, many of those plants had to close temporarily, leading to bottlenecks in slaughter capacity and uncertainty across the industry.
“When things go wrong, when we have big players, they go wrong in a big way,” Scott said. “When things go wrong in a big way, it’s hard to fix.”
Farmers losing money
For Scott, that meant cutting the size of his operation out of fear he may not be able to sell his animals in the fall. He brought around 1,500 cattle into his feedlot this spring — less than one-third of his usual 5,000. The animals were each about $200 cheaper than usual, but that bargain still wasn’t enough for him to take the risk of buying more.
“We weren’t going to take a chance on them, that’s for damn sure,” he said.
Bill Campbell, another Manitoba beef farmer, said he also felt the pandemic’s squeeze on the industry as prices for his animals dropped by 30 per cent. He said in the last few weeks, he sold 45 yearlings, steers and heifers and lost about $400 on each of them, making nearly $20,000 less than he was expecting.
“It’s a fair bit. You know, it’s a good Christmas.”
Campbell, who is also the president of Keystone Agricultural Producers, said he’s cutting costs where he can and is waiting anxiously to see how things turn out this fall.
“Now, we see some of the risk with kind of putting all our eggs in one basket,” he said.
Campbell said the pandemic has made him wonder about what a way forward with more local capacity for processing meat might look like in Manitoba.
For one thing, farmers would save money on freight costs by not having to ship animals to another province.
Right now, it costs about 10 cents per pound — around $150 for a typical 1,500-pound animal — to ship cattle from Manitoba to Alberta, he said.
Campbell said opening smaller local facilities to process meat could create more competition, giving farmers like him better prices for their animals. He said it could also help producers keep a closer eye on the quality of their meat.
“I always cringe when people tell me that they had a bad eating experience with beef. And so [I wonder] what happened to that product along the way that jeopardized that quality,” he said. “If we have more quality control of locally produced beef, then maybe we can reduce those incidences.”
Hurdles to making changes
Food policy expert Sarah Berger Richardson said smaller facilities would also have fewer employees and slower production lines, which could improve safety conditions for workers.
“[In a smaller facility], workers might not have to work at the same fast pace as they do at a facility that processes 4,000 animals a day,” said Berger Richardson, an assistant professor in the University of Ottawa law faculty’s civil law section.
“Workers have more time to react and respond if they see something’s not right. They’re not racing against the clock or a production line that’s whizzing by them.”
One major hurdle to creating more local facilities is government regulations.
Those include tags required to identify each animal, specifications for things like wall heights and cooling capacity, and a requirement to remove body parts like nerves and spinal cords to eliminate the risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (or mad cow disease).
The rules are crucial to make sure meat processed in Canada is safe to eat, but they can be difficult for smaller facilities to follow and may not all be equally necessary in slaughterhouses of all sizes, said Berger Richardson.
For smaller facilities to really have a chance at survival, the government would likely also need to pitch in some money, she said.
“It really requires a lot of different people to come together and think about this collectively and not kind of in the usual government silos.”
She said making these changes would likely result in more expensive meat, which may push people to introduce more plant-based proteins into their diet.
But for the companies running Canada’s major slaughterhouses, the question is a purely economic one, said Ryan Cardwell, an associate professor in the University of Manitoba’s department of agricultural economics. Despite the risk of COVID-19, it’s still cheaper to process large numbers of animals in one big facility than it would be to kill the same number in smaller sites across the country, he said.
“So unless that cost calculation changes, processing firms aren’t going to decide to do that,” Cardwell said. “They’re going to stick with large processing plants unless the risks of the virus contaminating people within a large plant can’t be addressed.”
Cardwell said while COVID-19 has caused industry disruptions worldwide, Canada’s food system has held up well — so unless the pandemic drags on, he doesn’t expect or recommend major changes.
“If, two years out, we don’t have a vaccine or we don’t have herd immunity or we’re still seeing these waves of big infection cycles, then maybe firms would be incentivized to do things differently,” he said.
“In terms of knee-jerk reaction to the current pandemic, I would caution against that.”
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