FALKLAND – The impact of COVID-19 on the BC meat sector was a key theme during the annual meeting of the BC Association of Abattoirs on May 15.
“Unprecedented” was how president Bonnie Windsor described the impact in her address. “Facing the increased demand proved challenging, but for the most part I think it was welcome.”
Windsor said the increase in demand was consumer-driven.
“It has been said that people were hoarding toilet paper and I think people were hoarding meat,” she notes. “COVID seems to have reminded consumers how important it is to support local and to consider the source of their food.”
With some consumers beginning to return to their old buying habits, Windsor sees a chance to increase meat sales.
“I believe our industry and local products have been opened up to a whole new market of consumers,” she says. “There is much opportunity for growth providing we position ourselves accordingly.”
Windsor is optimistic about the future of the industry.
“We showed that we can face the changes and challenges of COVID and we produced more meat products than ever before,” she says.
Association executive director Nova Woodbury shared numbers on just how much harder her members worked last year.
“In 2020, class A&B abattoirs processed 17% more cattle, 6% more pigs and nearly 8% more sheep and lambs than in 2019,” she explains. “Added up, this is a nearly 30% increase, or an additional 14,000 animals processed.”
The traditionally busy time of September through December remained so, Woodbury notes, but there were some unusual jumps in processing demand.
Cattle processing numbers were up 54% and 38% in May and June, respectively. Hog volumes were up nearly 15% and 18% in June and August, and the number of sheep and lambs processed rose 26% and 31% in September and December.
“Everyone deserves to feel good about what they accomplished in 2020,” says Woodbury.
But 2020 took its toll on BC Meats members thanks to a shortage of workers. In an on-line poll during the meeting, 94% of attendees said staffing was the biggest challenge facing them.
“It is beyond crisis,” says Richard Bell from Farmcrest poultry in Salmon Arm. “We need about 70 people to make our operation run and we are down to 41.”
He says he has been turning away business from new entrants in the North Okanagan because he doesn’t have the staff to process their birds.
Bell says though his base rate is $22 an hour, he has great difficulty attracting and retaining local help. The entire meat industry is in the same predicament, he says.
“I was talking to the head of meat at Save-on-Foods,” Bell says. “It’s in all aspects of our industry, all the way from the farm through slaughter and into retail and food service.”
Woodbury outlined the work the association is doing for the labour issue, a topic she says she covers frequently in her monthly meetings with government staff.
“We have been meeting with government and have put forward a proposal to take the training program we developed some years ago and putting it into an on-line format so that we can reach out to as many people across the province as possible,” she says, noting that the sticking point is on the government side. “We are hopeful that a new position in the BC Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries will be able to provide not only support, but tangible results,“ says Woodbury.
There is also difficulty accessing federal programs.
“We have been trying to find the right people to speak with on federal initiatives,” she says. “There was a federal government pilot under the Temporary Foreign Worker program for our industry. I have been dealing with the federal government, but I have not received an answer.”
While workers may come in under the federal TFW program, those looking to fast-track permanent residency often don’t stay long, says Bell.
“They simply use our industry as a stepping stone to get into the country and move on to another job as quickly as they can,” he explains.
Paul Devick of Rangeland Meats in Heffley Creek found himself in an opposite situation.
“I had a very good worker who wanted to keep working for us. He was trying to bring his family into Canada, but the government process was extremely slow,” recalls Devick. “He got so frustrated with the lack of progress, he left Canada and went back home.”
Both Windsor and Woodbury acknowledge that the industry lacks support in the community.
“We are not thought of as a viable career choice,” says Windsor. “We have failed to promote our industry. It’s not just work on the kill floor anymore.”
But 85% of people in BC report that they eat meat, Woodbury says.
“We need more support from the community for our industry.”
To that end Woodbury says the association is rebranding as BC Meats and preparing to relaunch its website, BCMeats.ca.
The new site will provide up-to-date information for consumers, producers, processors and abattoirs, chefs and retailers. The association will also launch a Facebook page and Instagram account.
“A key part of our social media will be to present profiles of our members,” says Woodbury. “Please encourage the producers, suppliers, butcher shops and customers that you work with to support us.”
Capacity is not the issue
Woodbury’s final message to members provided insights on industry capacity.
“We hear over and over again that slaughter capacity is an issue in BC. But is it?” she asks. “I think we’ve proved we could increase capacity in 2020 with over 14,000 more animals being processed than in 2019.”
Woodbury has looked at available red meat slaughter space and estimated output if plants ran five days a week, 48 weeks of the year.
“It turns out that if every current red meat abattoir did slaughter five days a week, 48 weeks of the year, slaughter capacity would increase by 2.3 times,” says Woodbury.
The message to government is clear, she says.
“There is enough slaughter capacity if there are enough workers,” she says. “The abattoir may not be as close as the producer would like or available at the last minute, but it is feasible.”