Challenges for Abattoir and Small Livestock Farms
Last October, while picking up several meat orders to stock my freezers for winter, I chatted with area farmers to find out what’s been happening on the farm. One consistent topic was the shortage of available butcher time. This problem has existed for a while in Ontario but worsened in 2020.
Federally inspected processing plants—also known as meat packing plants—process meat intended for trade across provincial or national borders. These plants are used by large farms or confinement operations. According to statistics from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (the government agriculture department), in 2007 there were seventy such plants across Canada. By 2019, only forty-seven plants remained, due to consolidation of the plants.1
Large meat processing operations, fewer in number, have now become mega-operations. One operation, Cargill, processes around four thousand five hundred cattle per day.2 In 2016, the top ten companies from each sector—beef, chicken, pork, dairy—controlled nearly a quarter of all global meat and dairy production.3 That year, the top ten poultry companies controlled 47 percent of chicken production in the world.3
In Canada, four companies own 97 percent of beef processing infrastructure.4 When these processors also raise their own livestock or have contracts for farmers to raise livestock solely for them, this creates a “captive supply,” enabling large processors to squeeze out small farm operators or force them to sell at low prices.
The number of provincially licensed abattoirs—which offer custom services that large processing plants cannot—has also declined over the years, but for different reasons. Over many years, the provincial government has mandated that stringent food safety rules intended and necessary for the large meat packing plants also apply to small Ontario abattoirs. (In other provinces, abattoirs may also be regulated by municipalities.) The abattoirs are used by smaller farms that focus on local—not transborder—markets. These local markets are largely direct-to-consumer sales because large food chains (such as Sobeys or Loblaws) will not allow store owners to carry meats from the abattoirs.
“The bio-safety model favors large farms, centralized processing, and global integration,” says Devlin Kuyek, a researcher at GRAIN, an international non-profit organization that supports small farmers. Kuyek monitors and analyzes global agribusiness and spoke at the National Farmers Union (NFU) 2020 Convention. Kuyek said, “farmers’ interests do not align with meat companies.” Kuyek added that there is a correlation between outbreaks or pandemics in livestock and the expansion of industrial livestock. The intensive confinement of large operations enables diseases to spread more quickly, as with the shedding of salmonella the longer cattle are in a feedlot.5 Mechanization on this massive processing scale produces its own risks and necessitates regulations to manage those risks; unfortunately, those regulations are then forced on decentralized, low-risk systems.
Tony McQuail of Meeting Place Organic Farm in Lucknow, Ontario, also spoke at the NFU 2020 Convention. He said that the industrial bio-safety model imposed on local abattoirs has had a negative impact and is very unrealistic. “A [local] plant operating a kill floor for a shift a couple days a week is a very different risk and health situation than a plant running 24/7.” McQuail was describing small abattoirs that tend to slaughter only once or twice a week, devoting the rest of their time to processing those relatively few carcasses—between ten and fifty. When the industrial-scale bio-safety rules came into effect, they created a significant financial burden on smaller facilities. With already high overhead, shortages of skilled labor and low profit margins, many local abattoirs closed. From three hundred provincially licensed abattoirs in Ontario in 1995, only one hundred fifteen remained by 2021.6,7 A 2014 master’s thesis by Hillary C. Barter, titled Slaughterhouse Rules: Declining Abattoirs and the Politics of Food Safety Regulation in Ontario, indicates that while the reasons for abattoir closures are complex, “Ontario’s food safety regulations were the most-cited cause.”8
New Challenges for Abattoirs
The decades-long decline began in the 1960s with the introduction of a provincial meat inspection system but worsened after 1992, when on-farm slaughter for resale meat became illegal. With new challenges, the decline has continued. In spring 2020, for example, more abattoirs were temporarily closed when employees tested positive on PCR tests. Even after reopening, processing facilities operated at a lower capacity due to government distancing guidelines for employees, causing ongoing backlogs. The overnight destruction by fire of a Wingham butcher shop compounded the problem still further. Describing the situation, Brad Martin of Echo Valley Ranch says, “2020 highlighted the shortfalls of a centralized processing system. If there were a hundred mom-and-pop cutting operations versus one or two abattoirs, there would be more resilience in these times.”
At the same time, many small farms saw an increase in demand for their products in 2020 due to various factors—threats or actual shortages of meat in the stores, fear of shopping in grocery stores or at farmers markets, hoarding of food supplies as well as consumers being better informed about quality foods. According to McQuail, “Covid-19 has created dramatic increases in people’s awareness of the problems with our existing system. . . and a hunger for a more local and accountable food system.”
To take advantage of the increased demand, many farmers scrambled to become more visible on eCommerce platforms. One platform alone reported that over fourteen hundred customers registered in a matter of days. Unfortunately, the local abattoir system could not meet the sharp uptick in demand. Nathan Kuepfer of Riverside Acres Farm confirmed that last year, his butcher was booking six months out. Fortunately, because of his longstanding relationship with his butcher, he was able to get his animals done sooner. “Know your farmer” is the mantra of WAPF members. For farmers, perhaps the mantra should be, “Know your butcher.” Similarly, Martin’s butcher called him in the spring advising him to book all processing dates through to year-end, while Angela Wisnoski of Wisnoski Family Farms reported booking in 2020—twelve months in advance—to secure a reservation for autumn 2021. “I didn’t even own those pigs yet,” she laughed. Laugh or go crazy. . . .
Impact on Small Livestock Farmers
In addition, each year farmers find it harder to get butchers to do custom work. Sarah Hargreaves of Three Ridges Ecological Farm said, “Our customers, for instance, like the giblets inside the chicken, but some butchers won’t do it that way. It’s quicker to throw all the organs together than to have to restuff them into individual birds.” According to Hargreaves, it was difficult for processors even to find employees this year and, when they did, the staff was often unskilled. She noticed, for instance, more bruising on her processed chickens. “Freshly killed chickens are ‘tumbled’ to remove the feathers,” Hargreaves said. “The speed of the machine can be altered, but if someone tries to hurry the process and tumbles on a high speed, it can result in a lot of bruising.” With the backlog of farmers needing butchering, it’s easy to see how this part of the process could be rushed, resulting in an inferior end product. “Processing affects the quality of the meat,” Hargreaves continued. “It’s frustrating when you take such care in moving your animals on pasture—every step of the way, you’re trying to make sound ethical and ecological decisions—and then you get to the processing where so much of it is out of your hands.” For instance, while she would prefer beef to be hung for a minimum of two weeks, butchers are just too busy to have animals in their facility for that long. “You’re lucky to get one week,” she said.
For many farmers, it’s now a two- to three-hour drive to take their animals to slaughter. Travel time is stressful for an animal. It’s separated from its herd, it’s in a truck—an unfamiliar environment—with other, unfamiliar animals, and it’s jostled about, no matter how carefully one drives. The stress of pre-slaughter handling can potentially deplete glycogen stores in the muscles, causing acidification. This then produces “dark cutting beef” (DCB), which is more prone to spoilage.9 Travel time also adds to the costs for the farmer, and that additional expense can make a difference in profitability. “I used to do twenty to thirty ducks at a time,” says Wisnoski, “but with longer drives, I need a minimum of one hundred to make it worthwhile. I don’t have enough customers for that size of flock, so I no longer raise ducks commercially.”
While many small family farmers are forced to drive long distances to the butcher, Sylvia Bennewies of Naturnah- Farms is more fortunate; she lives ten minutes from a butcher who is willing to squeeze in a single animal. It seems that farmers with more than one or two animals are the ones finding it most challenging to secure butcher time. In other words, the average small family farm has been affected most. “It used to be you could call up and get your animal butchered within two to three weeks,” Wisnoski says. “Now the wait can be two to four months.” Hargreaves says, “That means extra months of feeding an animal—and hay costs can make or break your profitability.”
Potential Solutions for Abattoirs
Family farm operators agree that something needs to be done about the situation, but there is no consensus on solutions. According to Echo Valley Ranch’s Martin, “On-farm processing for resale meat is necessary for small farms to survive.” Along these lines, a potential solution to the butchering backlog might be mobile abattoirs, but these are currently not legal in Ontario for resale meat. (They are, however, legal for meat that will be consumed by the farm family; for instance, when a cow is injured or pregnant and cannot be legally sold at a sale barn.) A mobile abattoir is essentially a traveling semi-truck with built-in refrigeration, used primarily for large animals such as beef cattle. A butcher arrives at the farm, the animal is killed with a single shot from a high-powered rifle and the carcass is partially processed on-site, then hung in the refrigerator truck to chill and age. Typically, it is “aged” overnight, and the butchering is completed the next day.10
On-farm processing has a number of benefits. “The single shot is an ethical death,” says Hargreaves, who favors legalizing mobile abattoirs. When an individual animal is pulled from the rest of the herd to be transported by truck, it creates stress, both for the animal being removed and for the remaining herd, which often becomes agitated and unsettled. A single shot, in contrast, often goes unnoticed in a herd; or if the herd is briefly startled by the loud noise, the animals very quickly resume grazing.
NFU continues to work to address regulatory issues and has produced an internal report to guide the provincial unions in making informed policy suggestions on the regulations. In British Columbia, which is facing similar problems with abattoirs, NFU-BC issued a report suggesting five remedial actions: (1) Allow on-farm slaughter and cut/ wrap capacity emergency measures (temporary cold storage rental facilities and incentives for butchers); (2) update regulations to be proportionate to the lower risk and increased traceability of the shorter food chain in small-scale agriculture and direct-to-consumer marketing; (3) permit virtual inspections for smaller, low-risk operations; (4) provide government assistance to upgrade existing facilities, create bursaries for staff training and financially support new operators; and (5) update meat processing training programs, create bursaries and training incentives and consider wage subsidies.11
The NFU-Ontario (NFU-O) has held a seat at the table of Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) “Livestock Capacity Working Group” alongside Meat & Poultry Ontario and other farm organizations and commodity groups. The coalition group, led by the Minister of Agriculture, is looking at building capacity in the abattoir industry. Until a recent cabinet shuffle that resulted in a new minister of agriculture, there had been “a real sense of momentum behind the issue.” NFU-O hopes to meet with the new minister soon, and the abattoir capacity shortage remains high on its list of priorities.
According to Sarah Bakker, 2020 NFU-O executive director, “There is a lot of work to be done. The biggest challenge will be convincing the government that reducing regulatory burdens will not affect food safety.” The fate of local food systems and food sovereignty depends on overcoming this challenge.
Donna Costa (donnacosta.ca) is a former WAPF chapter leader in London, Ontario, and has worked in holistic health for over twenty years. In 2020, she released her debut novel, Breathing With Trees, a coming-of-age story of a young teen raised on a Nourishing Traditions diet faced with making an adult decision about the HPV vaccine. For those interested in more thoroughly understanding the history and complexity of meat processing in Ontario, Hillary Barter’s 2014 thesis, Slaughterhouse Rules,8 available online, is well worth reading.
- Federally inspected slaughter plants – cattle and hog. “Number of federally inspected slaughter plants – hog – 2007-2019.” Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Government of Canada. https://agriculture.canada.ca/en/canadas-agriculture-sectors/ animal-industry/red-meat-and-livestock-market-information/slaughter-and-carcass-weights/federally-inspected-slaughter-plants-cattle-and-hog
- McLachlan I. Kill and Chill: Restructuring Canada’s Beef Commodity Chain. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.
- Kuyek D. Mooove over Cargill! Workshop 7, NFU 2020 Convention. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sB76tDTT7RU&ab_ channel=NationalFarmersUnionCanada
- Rude J, Harrison D, Carlberg J. Market power in Canadian beef packing. Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics. 2011;59(3):321-336.
- Khaitsa ML, Kegode RB, Bauer ML, et al. A longitudinal study of Salmonella shedding and antimicrobial resistance patterns in North Dakota feedlot cattle. Journal of Food Production. 2007;70(2):476-481.
- Baxter M. Does Ontario have enough slaughterhouses? TVO, Aug. 28, 2019. https://www.tvo.org/article/does-ontario-have-enough-slaughterhouses
- Provincially licensed meat plants. Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (current as of 12 January 2021). http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/food/inspection/meatinsp/licenced_operators_list.htm
- Barter HC. Slaughterhouse Rules: Declining Abattoirs and the Politics of Food Safety Regulation in Ontario. Department of Geography and Planning, University of Toronto, 2014. https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/68573/1/Barter_Hillary_C_201411_MA_thesis.pdf
- Warriss PD. The handling of cattle pre-slaughter and its effects on carcass and meat quality. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 1990;28(1-2):171-186.
- A vibrant small-scale meat industry for British Columbians: NFU recommendations to BC Ministry of Agriculture. National Farmer’s Union, Nov. 16, 2020. https://www.nfu.ca/a-vibrant-small-scale-meat-industry-for-british-columbians/
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2021🖨️ Print post