Inside the effort to expand meat processing options for farmers

Organizations in Cowichan and the South Island are pushing to make meat processing more feasible for small-scale farms in order to bolster the local food economy.

Some small-scale farmers in Cowichan and the South Island say the current system to process meat isn’t working for them, but community organizations and the province are stepping up to help improve the local food system.

In the early 2000s, policy shifts led to the closure of local abattoirs, leaving livestock farmers with fewer options to have their meat processed for sale. According to a 2009 report, the policy changes came into effect in order to help eradicate Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy — better known as mad cow disease. Now, there are only four abattoirs operating in the Cowichan Valley region.

“The point of what we’re doing is to produce happy animals who have the best lives right up until the very end, including preferably the very, very end,” says Cowichan-based farmer Alan Moore, of Valalan Farms. Moore says a lack of abattoirs and on-farm slaughter options presents challenges for small-scale farmers who struggle to book dates at local abattoirs and transport livestock to them in a way that is stress-free for the animals.

In 2006, The Tyee reported that new provincial meat inspection regulations would make it difficult for small farm operators to sell their meat. An article from The Globe and Mail published in 2007 says the new regulations were “driving small B.C. slaughterhouses out of business or underground” with “farmers joining the exodus.” 

Last year’s outbreaks of COVID-19 at meat processing plants in Alberta brought national attention to a major risk in Canada’s food supply chain. The vulnerability would come as no surprise to many farmers.

Now, as the province works to bolster local agriculture and food systems, farmers and organizations are also pushing for change to bring more, better processing options to Vancouver Island.

In Cowichan, a mobile abattoir could be on its way soon if a grant request by the Cowichan Green Community is approved by the province. Meanwhile, the South Island Prosperity Partnership has conducted a feasibility study to see if erecting an abattoir for the South Island region is possible. The province, too, is working on solutions.

Valorie Masuda feeds pigs at Valalan Farms. Photo by Jacqueline Ronson/The Discourse

How meat inspection regulations affect local food

Following Canada’s 2003 mad cow disease crisis, regulations that were part of the Food Safety Act came into effect to ensure meat quality and safety for consumers. The regulations enforce standards for things like equipment and cleaning, inspection and slaughter, employee hygiene and office and washroom spaces for the inspector. The regulations also indicate the various things an inspector has to sign off on before and after slaughter and include provisions so that an inspector must be present during slaughter.

Before the changes, Cowichan Valley farms could have on-site slaughtering facilities without an abattoir licence, so long as they met local health regulations. These facilities could process animals from local farms to sell directly to customers. With the new rules, all meat for legal sale must be processed in a licensed facility. Many small-scale and on-farm processing facilities faced a choice between the significant costs of meeting licensing requirements or shutting down. 

In B.C., slaughter establishments are either federally registered by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency or are provincially licensed. Those that are provincially licensed can only sell products in B.C. Licences are available under a graduated licensing system with classes ranging between A and E. People who slaughter animals for personal consumption don’t need a licence. Different classes have different restrictions when it comes to how many animal units can be slaughtered, whether or not they can cut and wrap the meat and where sales are permitted (like at a farm gate, market, commercial retail or restaurants). 

As of July 2020 there were four provincially licensed abattoirs in the Cowichan Valley Regional District, along with another two in Nanaimo, one in Victoria and one on Salt Spring Island. They are all licensed as Class A, meaning they can slaughter, cut and wrap and can sell to retail stores or directly to consumers.

Class D and E licenses allow on-farm slaughter. The licences have a limit on the number of animal units that can be slaughtered and an inspector doesn’t have to be on the farm during slaughter for abattoirs with these licences. Those operating with a Class D or E licence can only sell within the farm’s regional district.

The caveat is that Class D and E licences are only available in 13 designated areas in B.C. The areas were chosen due to a combination of factors: low population, low livestock numbers, no access to Class A or B abattoirs nearby and transportation barriers. The Cowichan Valley Regional District and Capital Regional District are not among the 13 designated areas.

There are 13 designated areas in B.C. that allow small-scale livestock producers to apply for a Class D or E licence. Photo from Province of B.C. website

Class E licences can be issued in a non-designated area if an operator can demonstrate a clear need for additional slaughter capacity or requires special services that aren’t available nearby.

A report from 2014 says the number of abattoirs in the Cowichan Valley were “just sufficient to meet demands” at the time. However, that demand was already in decline, in part due to the lack of options for slaughter.

Between 2006 and 2011, animal production for hens, chickens and pigs declined by about 25 per cent in the Cowichan Valley Regional District, the report says. Cattle and calf production declined by about 15 per cent and goat production declined by about 12 per cent. This is despite the population of the region growing by almost one per cent each year. About 50 years ago, Vancouver Island produced about 90 per cent of the food it consumed, but the situation has since reversed, with 90 per cent of food being imported in 2014, the report also notes.

Reduced access to abattoirs and inspected meat processing facilities has led to a decline in Cowichan’s livestock industry, the report says. Other factors that led to the decline were increased slaughterhouse waste costs, increased feed and fertilizer costs and other market factors.

What do farmers have to say?

Valorie Masuda and Alan Moore are newbies when it comes to their farming career. A little over one year ago, they purchased land on Somenos Road near Duncan and created Valalan Farms. They share the property with another couple, operating a farm business called Digable Roots, through a land lease facilitated by the B.C. Land Matching Program.  

At Valalan Farms, Moore says they have “a handful of cows” and also raise pigs, chicken and lamb. They’ve found when it comes to slaughter, booking a date at a local abattoir has been really difficult.

“You basically have to book when the pigs are born,” Masuda says. 

She says they have to consider well in advance how many piglets they plan on selling, keeping and which ones are for personal use. They also need to co-ordinate travel of livestock to a processing facility, which can be very stressful for the animals. 

Moore and Masuda say they really have to weigh whether or not it is profitable — keeping processing and travel fees in mind.

“The whole burden of ‘how do I process animals for sale?’ becomes a real problem,” Masuda says.

Both Moore and Masuda say they started their farm to help the local food economy, but the struggle and costs they endured this past year when it came to processing meat have them second-guessing whether or not raising livestock for sale is worth it. They say they’re not looking to produce meat on a large scale and compete with grocery stores, but they want to be able to provide locally-raised, good quality meat to community members.

“Really, [people] want a better-quality product that’s local,” Moore says. “We’re the ones who could supply it, but it’s hard to do that without the support and local facilities.”

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farm lease land match
Valorie Masuda and Alan Moore welcome guests to an informational event on their property, Valalan Farms, on Aug. 23, 2020. Photo by Jacqueline Ronson/The Discourse

In Sooke, Erin Newell started Cast Iron Farm about five years ago after moving to the area from the Lower Mainland. It’s her first farming experience and she says livestock farming — pigs in particular — was an obvious choice because meat has a longer shelf-life compared to vegetables and is a higher-value product. While she says the farm is constantly selling out of product, getting her pigs processed has been difficult.

Currently, Newell says the pigs are transported to an abattoir in Duncan for processing. The pigs travel to the abattoir in a trailer that they’ve become familiar with after sleeping in it for at least one week before travel. But the trailer is a stark contrast to what their lives are like at the farm. 

Newell says at the farm, the pigs are not closed in anywhere and have a happy life leading up to the day they are slaughtered.

“We do the best that we can … but they don’t like being closed in and they don’t want to travel,” Newell says. “What we aim for is one kind of confusing day but otherwise, relative happiness.”

Booking a date for slaughter is an issue for Cast Iron Farm as well, Newell says. Right now, the farm is set to receive piglets that haven’t even been born yet. Newell is already looking at booking slaughter dates for some time in the fall. Because the farmers don’t want to cram pigs into the trailer, that means booking multiple appointments, Newell says.

Last year, Newell says the farm couldn’t get a timely date for slaughter, which meant some of the pigs continued to grow for about four months longer than usual. This meant extra costs to feed them as well as to slaughter them.

“At the end, there are these giant beasts that are hard to transport and it’s hard for the abattoir to deal with,” Newell says.

In the last five years, Newell says they’ve reduced the number of pigs they raise for sale due to difficulties getting a slaughter date and associated costs which, in turn, drive up the cost of meat for sale as well. 

These issues aren’t only specific to these farms.

Nick Neisingh, former president of the Cowichan Agricultural Society, says he’s heard complaints from several small-scale farmers who say they can’t get a timely date to process their livestock. He says there isn’t enough capacity in the slaughter system as a whole in Cowichan.

“It makes it really difficult to get an income from agriculture,” Neisingh says.

He says he knows of small-scale farms who have stopped producing livestock completely because of challenges associated with processing. He says he considers a lack of access to abattoirs to be a threat to food security.

“It’s not a big deal if one farmer doesn’t raise those two cows … but if you multiply that out over 100 farms, that’s 200 cows not going into the local food supply,” Neisingh says.

The Discourse reached out to local abattoirs to ask what demand looks like on their end and received a phone call response from Island Farmhouse Poultry CEO, Dion Wiebe. He says the facility has been under a lot of pressure when it comes to processing demands. He says the abattoir tries to accommodate as many processing requests as possible, but loses flexibility in doing so. That means smaller processing requests may be more difficult to take on.

“It becomes more of a challenge,” Wiebe says.

Piglets at Cast Iron Farm in Sooke. Photo from Cast Iron Farm/Facebook

When asked what could be done to help small-scale livestock farmers, Neisingh, Newell, Moore and Masuda all said the same thing: more options to process meat on farms.

While they say they recognize the provincial regulations are in place for food safety reasons, they think meat can be processed in a safe, if not safer, way on farms. This could be done through more Class D and E licencing options or through the use of a mobile abattoir.

Masuda says she thinks safety issues can be mitigated when consumers know exactly where their meat is coming from. If there’s a food safety issue, it’s easy to trace the problem and address it.

“My understanding is [the regulations are] all about meat inspection and keeping the consumer safe,” Masuda says. “But I think that if you look at small-scale farming where there’s a direct line between farmer and consumer … I mean, that falls away.”

Wiebe, with Island Farmhouse Poultry, says he’s in favour of a small-scale abattoir coming to the region to take the pressure off their facility and help local farmers.

A mobile abattoir for Cowichan

The Cowichan Green Community has applied for a grant through the province’s Community Economic Recovery Infrastructure program to establish a mobile abattoir for the Cowichan region. 

In a phone interview, Cowichan Green Community executive director Judy Stafford says the funding was supposed to be announced in mid- to late-February, but that they haven’t heard back yet.

“It’s something we’ve been working on for quite some time,” Stafford says. “As a really basic cornerstone for increasing local food security, you need to have production.”

The mobile abattoir model has been used in many places, including the Yukon and Germany.

It would essentially be an abattoir on wheels, travelling from farm to farm so livestock can be slaughtered on site. Food safety regulations would still be followed and farmers wouldn’t have to figure out how to transport livestock. The mobile abattoir in the Yukon, for example, follows Canada’s Mobile Abattoir Procedures Manual, which lays out maintenance, waste disposal, sanitizing and more.

Stafford says having a mobile abattoir for the region is a “no brainer” given the number of agricultural studies over the years that have recommended one.

The aforementioned 2014 report was produced for the BC Agriculture and Food Climate Action Initiative in partnership with the CVRD. It says mobile food processing is an area of strong opportunity for the Cowichan region to improve the economics of small-scale food processing.

“One vehicle travelling to a number of small farms and food producers is far easier, safer and cheaper than each food producer having to load up their product, transport it to a central facility, process it and then transport it back,” the report says.

In a 2018 report, B.C.’s select standing committee on agriculture, fish and food recommended that regulations related to mobile slaughter facilities should be reviewed to make it more affordable and accessible for small-scale producers.

Stafford says a mobile abattoir is a “significant” expense, but hopes funding will come in to give small-scale meat producers another option for processing.

Judy Stafford Cowichan Green Community
Judy Stafford is the executive director of the Cowichan Green Community Society. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

Another abattoir for the South Island

In May, 2020, the South Island Prosperity Partnership (SIPP) announced that it received $12,500 in funding to commission a feasibility study for a local abattoir. 

“Today, as we face an unprecedented global health concern crisis with COVID-19, the importance of local food supply chains is becoming even more evident,” a release from the organization says, as it announced the feasibility study.

Kieran Buggy, manager of operations with SIPP, says the organization was prompted to look into abattoir feasibility after engaging in conversations with a restaurant owner who is also a farmer in Greater Victoria. The restauranteur told them he has to take ducks off the Island just to be processed and then transport them back again.

Engaging with stakeholders in the community, the feasibility study first looked at the lay of the land, Buggy says. It examined livestock numbers and what some of the issues are when it comes to processing meat. Then the study went on to build a business case around the operation of an abattoir and whether or not it would be feasible to build a new one or repurpose an existing facility. It also looked at the value of adding options like cutting and wrapping of meat.

“Part of the study was looking at ‘where can we add the most value where the supply chain has potentially diminished?’,” Buggy says.

But having just one organization take on the running of an abattoir facility could be a big ask, Buggy says. Keeping that in mind, the feasibility study is looking at different abattoir options, like running a co-op model, for example. Buggy says the organization has also examined the possibility of a mobile abattoir for the Capital Regional District.

Buggy says many consumers opt to purchase grocery store meat rather than locally-sourced meat from smaller farms due to the cost difference. But he says providing more options for slaughter — whether that’s through a mobile operation, another abattoir or a co-op model — can help local farmers reduce the cost of their meat. 

“If we can improve the supply chain, those costs could come down,” Buggy says. “And you’re looking at a premium product from a local butcher and locally-produced meat.”

Buggy says the feasibility study was in its final stages at the end of 2020 and is set to be released soon.

The province promises regulatory improvements

In August 2020, the province announced a new consolidated process for meat inspection in B.C. to improve efficiency and oversight. Effective Dec. 1, 2020, all slaughter activity that is licensed under the province’s meat inspection regulation for Class A, B, D and E licences is now under the purview of the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries. Previously, regional health authorities were responsible for Class D and E licences. The change was made in response to consultations, including the Select Standing Committee on Agriculture, Fish and Food’s 2018 report on local meat production and inspection. The report made 21 recommendations, which were all accepted by the province.

In September 2020, the Ministry of Agriculture released an intentions paper on modernizing rural slaughter. In it, the province says recommendations from the 2018 report are already being implemented, including a change to allow licensing of Class E establishments that are more than a one-hour travel time to a Class A or B facility, instead of the two hour minimum that was in place before spring of 2019.

The Ministry of Agriculture has also delivered food safety and animal welfare training workshops for rural producers, launched a slaughter capacity study to serve as a baseline for future reviews of the province’s meat inspection program and highlighted local meat products as part of the government’s Buy B.C. campaign. In June 2020, three new areas were added to the Class D licensing program: Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District, Electoral Area D in the Regional District of Central Kootenay and Electoral Area H in the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George.

The B.C. Ministry of Agriculture engaged in public consultation on its intentions paper in the fall of 2020 and received 86 emailed submissions and two mailed submissions. The province says it is considering changes to policies around slaughter. Those changes include increasing the amount of meat that can be processed annually by Class D and E licence holders and expanding who and where their meat can be sold. They also include developing alternative models of licensing for mobile abattoirs, exploring a pilot program of conducting certain inspection components virtually and renaming the licences so the new categories are “more intuitive.”

The Ministry of Agriculture says it is reviewing feedback and will summarize and make it public through a report once finished. [end]

 This Food For Thought article is made possible in part with funding from the Real Estate Foundation of BC and Journalists for Human Rights/RBC. Their support does not imply endorsement of or influence over the content produced.

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