COOMBS – A year ago, Lori Gillis was sounding the alarm about the coming wave of retirements that threatened to drastically reduce meat processing capacity on Vancouver Island. She was 66, and had nearly 23 years’ experience under her belt.
“All the butchers – red and poultry – we’re all in the same sort of age group,” says Gillis, who runs The Cluck Stops Here, a licensed Class A poultry plant in Coombs. “We can’t last forever and no one is coming up behind us.”
She thought she might have another 18 months, or until the end of 2021 at the very latest, but then a long-time employee resigned, citing arthritis. Shortly afterwards, while working her garden, Gillis’ own hands stiffened and refused to cooperate with her.
“My hands can’t do it anymore,” she said. “But the demand is huge.”
Despite growing demand for her services from small-scale producers, which only seems to have increased in the wake of COVID-19 and greater interest in local food, she decided to close. She called the clients she could, and in July was handling the last few birds for the clients she couldn’t reach.
“It’s just tidying up now,” she said.
Al’s Feathers Be Gone in Port Alberni is taking on most of her clients, but Gillis says shops like hers filled an important niche. Her closure follows that of Plecas Meats in Nanaimo this spring, leaving 10 Class A abattoirs on Vancouver Island – five each for red meat and poultry.
Changing times mean the rules need to change to ensure the services of the smaller abattoirs that provided custom slaughter won’t be lost. Gillis says this requires more than an expansion of Class D licences, a move the province made in June to boost processing capacity in the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District as well as two other areas.
Class D abattoirs are geared to provide fresh meat on a regional basis but lack inspection, which limits distribution to within their home region. This supports local processing but caps the extent to which it can grow. Processors looking to expand need to have inspection services to facilitate access to larger markets, not just within their region.
Moreover, the demand for local slaughter capacity is outstripping the ability of smaller processors to accommodate it. A larger plant, such as Island Farmhouse Poultry in Duncan, has limited capacity to handle custom slaughter.
“The equipment that they use in an industrial plant is very fast,” says Gillis. “[But] it doesn’t hold the home-grown birds, which are much larger. … The little plants are so needed.”
Without a viable solution, she expects underground processing will increase. BC Ministry of Agriculture compliance and enforcement staff have opened 188 files related to the Meat Inspection Regulation since 2014. The files led to 21 illegal operations being shut down and at least six new abattoirs licensed as a result of compliance and enforcement activities.
Gillis herself was an underground operator before licensing in 2010.
“We had no trouble with going into the meat inspection system. It was just a smooth transition; we basically were operating like that anyway,” she says.
The threat of fines – a last resort, says the province – and incentives to upgrade plants helped bring many operators into compliance at the time.
“They offered all kinds of government grants to help you switch over. That was a very good incentive – first the fine, and I didn’t want to lose my farm, and then the incentive to upgrade the buildings,” she says.
But now that the new licensing system has become established, it has to adapt to reflect current realities.
“Times have changed,” she says. “There’s a whole switch in society in how we’re viewing food and our lives. … There seems to be a huge increase in people growing their own chickens. You could say, in a hard way, the system is archaic.”
One scenario she sees is a closer relationship between farmers and processors. She suggests a processing co-op where growers would contract with an abattoir operator for services. The need for closer relationships throughout the value chain is an idea supported by other industry groups, including the BC Association of Abattoirs.
Gillis also sees the need for training that addresses both the technical aspects of butchering animals, but also animal welfare and consumer concerns.
“We need something better than the D and the E licences,” she says. “[Farmers] will always butcher their meat; regulation is not going to stop them. … There should be a course for them, a certificate, and a yearly meeting.”
But training is in short supply.
Olds College in Alberta offers slaughter courses and occasional workshops focused on slaughter for personal use (the ministry says these are not a concern), but no formal, accredited training program in BC.
A series of workshops hosted by the BC Ministry of Agriculture and BC Breeder and Feeder Association last year focused on animal welfare/humane handling and slaughter hygiene at 10 locations throughout BC.
BC Association of Abattoirs executive director Nova Woodbury was one of the trainers – independent of her association work – and says the association supports training for all members of the slaughter industry
“BCAA is supportive of training of absolutely everybody who is involved with the slaughter of animals,” she says. “The better we are all at it, the better it is for the animals and the consumers.”
She looks forward to provincial training initiatives resuming as the province continues to reopen following the pandemic.
Catching her breath
Gillis, for her part, is taking a break from raising her own birds right now as she catches her breath, but she’s concerned about what awaits her next year. She’ll be just like any other small-lot producer at that point.
“We have the barn, we have the feeders and all that, but I’m going to need a place to take my birds to,” she exclaims. “So I’m quite curious. … It’s going to be interesting because I’m on the other end of the spectrum now.”