British Columbia

Small-scale meat producers having trouble getting animals to market due to inspector shortage: B.C. ranchers

The B.C. Small Scale Meat Producers Association says ranchers are struggling to find places to butcher their animals legally after demand for local meat soared during the pandemic.

Association representing producers says more ranchers should be allowed to slaughter their own animals

Demand for locally raised meat skyrocketed during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, says the president of the Small-Scale Meat Producers Association, who wants the province to make regulatory changes so more ranchers are licensed to butcher their own meat. (Tyler Zhao)

Some B.C. farmers and ranchers raising animals for small, local markets are worried the meat may never make it to consumers because product demand is outstripping slaughterhouse capacity and the availability of product inspectors.

According to the Small-Scale Meat Producers Association, which represents people raising meat outside of the conventional, large-scale industrial system, demands for farm-to-table meat skyrocketed in the province during the pandemic as people looked close to home for more sustainable food options.

Because of that increased demand, and what the association says has been an ongoing problem of a lack of qualified inspectors who need to be on site when an animal is slaughtered, some meat producers are being left with nowhere to legally process their meat.

Association president Julia Smith, a rancher herself, said this means meat producers will have to pay more than anticipated to keep feeding their livestock — and might ultimately be tempted to butcher their own meat.

"They are going to get processed one way or another and we'd really like to see that done with some oversight," Smith said. 

A delay in processing also means some ranchers could miss the ideal time window for butchering.

"A lamb is only a lamb for so long, then it becomes mutton," said Prince George, B.C., rancher Robert Redmond, who told CBC he hasn't been able to find anywhere he can process his sheep this year.

That could mean his meat might drop in value and his income will suffer, which could have dire repercussions because farmers need to earn a certain amount of income off their farm to keep certain licensing.

Slaughterhouse rules

Smith wants regulatory changes made to help what she is calling "a real crisis."

This could include virtual inspections and increasing the amount of Class D and E licences, which allow on-farm slaughters — rather than requiring the use of an abatoir with a licensed inspector on site, if the meat is being sold regionally.

The B.C. Ministry of Agriculture is currently engaged in a consultation process with ranchers, abattoirs, local governments and health authorities on this exact issue. Feedback closes Nov. 16.

Julia Smith, president of the Small-Scale Meat Producers Association, also runs Blue Sky Ranch near Merritt, B.C. She says some animals, like pigs, have a very small window for when they are ready to be slaughtered and when ranchers can 'maximize the yield in [their] margins.' (blueskyranch.ca)

But Mike Noullet, who runs an abatoir on the outskirts of Prince George, said expanding Class D and E licences would be a mistake.

"In the opinion of most abatoir owners, it is an illegal licence," said Noullet, who operates Kawano Farms. 

He worries that going this route could cause blowback to the B.C. meat industry if tainted product hits the market.

"If somebody gets sick from one of those animals, the whole industry is painted with the same brush," he said.

The risk of change

According to Smith, there has never been a food-borne illness traced back to an on-farm kill, unlike at big, highly regulated federal plants.

She said in a worst-case scenario where there was contaminated product, it would be very easy to trace because small-scale producers primarily sell direct to the consumer and do not break the animal into several parts to send it multiple places.

"What we want is oversight that matches the risk," said Smith.

She says the situation is now too critical to wait for the results of public consultation and only a possibility that regulatory changes are coming.

She would like to see an emergency measure put in place now so farmers can make some money and consumers can have local meat this winter.

To hear the complete interview with Julia Smith on Daybreak North, tap here.

With files from Daybreak North

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