MERRITT—The province’s latest bungle in the seemingly endless consultations on meat processing in the province have added yet another note of frustration to the voice of Julia Smith.
Smith, president of the Small-Scale Meat Producers Association, is baffled at the province’s reasoning for not including industry in a request for feedback from local governments about class D slaughter licences, which allow holders to slaughter 25 animal units and engage in limited retail sales in 10 of the province’s 27 regional districts.
“They said if they told us, they’d have to tell everybody,” she says. “What is the worst that could happen if you told everybody?”
Unlike at facilities holding class A and B licences, the slaughter process at Class D establishments is not inspected by the province.
The BC Ministry of Agriculture asked local governments on June 3 for input on “proposals for new class D regions or sub-regions; and designation of new regions or sub-regions.”
Submissions were to be accepted through July 19.
Smith says there were three problems with the process: it came in the midst of summer holidays, regional districts are generally unfamiliar with the concept of class D licences, and the timeline was a short six weeks.
Moreover, industry wasn’t included.
“We heard about this second-hand,” says Smith. “We scrambled to make a big fuss and got an initial extension. And that’s when they told me they would have had to tell everybody.”
The initial extension ran until July 26, but was soon extended to October 1.
Smith says that the extra time gives small producers a chance to speak with their local governments and explain the business case for having a D-class abattoir in their region.
“We’d like to help the ministry get the feedback they are asking for,” says Smith. “The small-scale meat industry is a legitimate business with proven market demand and we need access to more processing – or we are hamstrung.”
Small-scale meat producers need to be able to process animals every month, explains Smith, who operates Blue Sky Ranch outside of Merritt, but that’s difficult right now given the long lead times abattoirs require.
“I’m trying to book for December and I can’t get a date,” she says. “I don’t even bother trying for September, October, November.”
Her association is asking for more D-class plants across the province, not only in the Thompson Nicola Regional District where she farms. TNRD is not considered remote and is not allowed to have D-class abattoirs at the present time.
“I think if the TNRD and other regional districts have a chance to learn about what the economic opportunity is here, I think they will get behind this,” she says.
Nova Woodbury, executive director of the BC Association of Abattoirs, isn’t sure more abattoirs are needed. (The province has commissioned a study of slaughter capacity in BC, due for delivery this fall.)
She travels across the province working with both inspected and uninspected plants, and feels the problems are limited to set times of the year.
“My feeling is that we only have a capacity problem during the fall run in October and November when a lot of the beef and game is getting processed,” she says. “We have the capacity to kill animals. We may have a lack of cooler space to hang carcasses, and we certainly do have a labour shortage to staff the cut and wrap process.”
Kamloops mayor Ken Christian is a director with the TNRD and previously spent 37 years in public health, ending his career as regional director, health protection, for the Interior Health Authority.
Christian doesn’t think more D-class licences would be a problem.
“I don’t think constituents are very aware of the lower level of inspection for D and E licences,” says Christian. “There is an assumption that every piece of meat that shows up on your plate in a restaurant is inspected and that is a naive and impossible assumption.”
And that’s likely to remain the norm.
“I think that random testing and random inspection of slaughterhouse floors is probably the best that you will ever get,” he says.
However, he says better follow-up is needed when complaints arise to maintain public confidence in meat when food-borne illnesses occur. The current process is complaint-driven, and regulators need to make sure complaints are adequately addressed.
“If they did that better, then I think you would be able to nip these things in the bud,” he says.
Christian says staff did annual visits to licensed plants along with following up every complaint when he was with IHA.
A key area for concern, Christian says, are farmers’ markets, such as the one in Kamloops.
“It is more or less an extension of farmgate sales, and that is something that people turn a relatively blind eye, too,” he says.
The risk that worries him is a food-safety incident at a local market which could jeopardize the reputation of the entire meat industry. However, he doesn’t think the risk is any greater at uninspected plants than government-inspected plants.
“Quite frankly, even with the federal system, you have that potential,” he says. “I don’t think there is going to be a whole lot of difference.”
This doesn’t sit well with Woodbury, who believes government is missing the point by considering more
“There is no reason to increase uninspected meat in this province,” she says. “Third-party oversight assures the consumer that food safety and animal welfare concerns are being addressed.”
Smith says her association isn’t opposed to inspections. She would like to see slaughter capacity in small communities, reducing travel time for animals even if it increases it for inspectors.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to say that the second and third Tuesday of the month are kill days in Merritt and they send an inspector to the Nicola Valley?” she asks. “Wouldn’t that be easier than having all of us haul our animals all over the place?”
But it’s a tough discussion to have, especially with governments throwing their support behind plant-based diets.
“I worry that meat is not a very politically popular topic right now,” she says. “Nobody wants to talk about killing animals, but that’s what we need to talk about.”