Julia Smith is lucky. Her pigs have a date with the butcher.
That was far from guaranteed, said the Merritt, B.C., rancher and president of the Small-Scale Meat Producers Association. B.C. abattoirs and butcher shops are in short supply, Smith explained, limiting the availability of local meat in the province — and recently announced changes to provincial abattoir laws might not do much.
“We have a serious lack of slaughter and cut-and-wrap capacity in this province,” she said.
“Abattoirs are cancelling bookings that were made months in advance because they’re slammed. The only reason I got my spot is because I booked a year in advance.”
B.C.’s abattoir regulations, as they stand, are complicated.
A and B licences are issued to larger, off-farm slaughterhouses, which must have a provincial meat inspector check each animal for disease or mistreatment before and after slaughter. There are no limits on the number of animals these abattoirs can process, and their products can be sold anywhere in the province.
D and E licences, in contrast, are issued for on-farm slaughter operations and allow farmers to slaughter a limited number of animals if they can prove a class A or B facility isn’t easily accessible. An inspector also doesn’t need to be on-farm for the slaughter at abattoirs operating on these licences — but they can only sell within the farm’s regional district.
Most of B.C.’s 134,000 head of livestock and 330 million chickens are slaughtered in a facility licensed under these regulations (some animals are processed in federally inspected abattoirs, which means they can be sold across provincial borders).
Julia Smith is lucky. Her pigs have a date with the #butcher. That wasn't guaranteed, explained the president of @Smallscalemeat. “We have a serious lack of slaughter capacity" #localfood #bcfood #bcpoli #localmeat
Currently, class D and E licences are inspected by regional health authorities. The changes announced two weeks ago will transfer that responsibility to the agriculture ministry as of Dec. 1.
The change was one of several recommendations outlined in a 2018 report by the provincial select standing committee on agriculture, fish, and food on local meat production and inspection in B.C.
“British Columbians want high-quality and trusted meat products raised by B.C. ranchers and farmers, and this change will help us meet that demand,” said Agriculture Minister Lana Popham in a statement.
Smith isn’t sure.
“They haven’t changed anything except the oversight. But it opened the door and it’s our hope as an association that we will be able to expand on-farm slaughter,” she said.
Increasing the capacity for on-farm slaughters would ease the pressure on slaughterhouses and butcher shops, she explained, while helping farmers like her expand operations enough to remain financially viable.
As it stands, limits on the number of animals that can be slaughtered on-farm, combined with a severe backlog at class A and B abattoirs, mean that Smith and other small-scale farmers can’t get more animals because they wouldn’t have a place to slaughter and butcher them.
That’s especially frustrating because there is significant demand for local meat, she said.
British Columbians currently eat more meat than is produced in the province, notes the 2018 select standing committee report. For instance, in 2013, B.C. residents ate four and a half times more beef, three and three-quarters more pork, and twice as much lamb than the amount produced in the province.
“We bought our farm four years ago because we couldn’t keep up with demand and needed to expand our operation. Then we got here and found out we can’t expand our operations because I can’t get any more animals killed,” Smith said.
The provincial government is still consulting with abattoirs, ranchers, and local governments around expanding on-farm slaughter options.
It’s an expansion Michael Noullet, who owns Kawano Farms, a class A farm and abattoir in Prince George, B.C. that processes about 375 animals a month, hopes won’t happen.
“The whole (class) D and E expansion is a thorn in my side. I think they should be illegal because they aren’t inspected,” he said.
“There’s an inspector on site for every animal that’s killed here, and the D's and E’s don’t have that. There’s no oversight, so they shouldn’t be allowed to operate.”
That includes no strict requirements for on-farm butchering facilities, including refrigeration and running water, he said.
Smith disagreed, saying that on-farm slaughter reduces animals’ stress and exposure to pathogens — both of which are increased when livestock is transported to an abattoir. She does not butcher her pigs on-farm.
“I did expansions to my shop when they said everything in B.C. is going to be inspected,” Noullet said, referencing a major overhaul of B.C.’s abattoir regulations in 2003 that required all meat sold to pass through a federally or provincially licensed slaughter facility.
Most other abattoirs in the region didn’t plan on expanding to meet the new criteria, so Noullet invested heavily to meet the new requirements for an A class licence to absorb their business. But it was business that never appeared — the day D and E (and, at the time, C) licences were announced, ranchers opted to slaughter on-farm and cancelled their orders.
“I had a massive cooler and massive freezer that sat here empty for years,” he said.
It’s only recently, as demand has increased, that he has seen his facility operating near full capacity. His only remaining limit to taking on more animals — and reducing the backlog limiting the growth of Smith’s business — is labour.
“If I could get more employees, I could do more animals and there wouldn’t be such a long waiting list,” he said. Increasing educational and training opportunities, such as apprenticeships, mentorship, and co-op opportunities, were among the recommendations for reform listed by the 2018 select standing committee report.
Labour shortages, abattoir pileups, changes to on-farm slaughtering rules — B.C. meat producers and abattoirs face issues that have been stewing for years, Smith and Noullet said. And the pandemic has made them bubble up into public consciousness.
“COVID didn’t change anything for small-scale producers except it shone a light on the problem,” Smith said. “When you’ve got a vulnerable system and you add stress to it ... the cracks are already there.”
Marc Fawcett-Atkinson/Local Journalism Initiative/Canada’s National Observer