By Connor Lynch
SELYWYN — The number of abattoirs in Ontario has shrunk from 189 back in 2006, to 141 as of 2016, a 25 per cent decrease over 10 years.
“That’ll be 50 per cent in another 10,” said Joe Donaldson, who has run Smokey Joe’s just outside of Peterborough for the last 13 years.
“The worst of it is that regulations are a moving target,” said Donaldson. BSE in Canada has changed the industry, he said, and those changes are costing slaughterhouse owners money. “Once our kill floors made revenue. Now they’re the cost of doing business.
“Years ago when we got paid for guts and hides, that paid the hydro bill and the man’s wages. Now hide sales don’t even cover your bone pickup.”
Donaldson has managed to continue to make a go of it because of his location. “I’m in cottage country.” That has meant his retail store has thrived, which he’s planning on expanding.
“But 90 per cent of the abattoirs, the little guys, are on the back roads and don’t have the chance to do retail.”
Part of the issue around the regulations, said Donaldson, is that animal welfare has taken the front seat. “In some sense it’s good, but when you penalize us, the underground market thrives.
“What I’m seeing is the farmer will phone me and say they have a compromised animal. The cost of just the vet before he even gets it here is $300 to $500, so he says he’ll do it on the farm, or he’ll get it taken care of somewhere else.
“If that animal shows up here it has to face the rigours of inspection. If we inspect it and find it’s diseased we can stop it, but if it goes into the underground economy we can’t.
“We’re all for safety, but if that animal isn’t in the system we can’t stop it.”
And Donaldson said that among the three or four abattoirs he’s seen go under over the last few years, their replacements (when they do get replaced) aren’t necessarily farmer friendly.
“They’re being bought by the Muslim community. The regular farmer that needs custom work, those places are becoming unavailable because they focus on their own community.”
Trying to get a new abattoir going is not just an uphill battle. “There’s no way. The regulations are too crazy to get started.”
But it isn’t only the regulations keeping fresh blood out of the business. Patti Thurston, who has run Len & Patti’s Butcher Block in Little Britain since 2006, said most of her workers are in their 50s and 60s.
“It’s not the kind of work everyone can do. I was able to pick up skilled people from the places that shut down, but as far as young people, it’s difficult to find them.”
Some of the farmers that come to her to slaughter their animals drive for 2 or 3 hours, and if they haven’t booked a few months in advance, she can’t guarantee them a spot.
“You could fill every day of the week but then it’s got to be processed and you can only do so much.”
And the owners have their hands full. Most of the slaughterhouses in Ontario, said Thurston, are mom and pop operations, where the owners do much of the work themselves, not just slaughtering but the paperwork as well. “Paperwork which just gets heavier every year, or every time you turn around.”
That’s not even to mention rising hydro costs. After Thurston got the issues with her new hydro meter sorted out, she noticed her hydro bill had jumped by $1,000 a month.
Thurston, who also runs a retail store, said “the only good trend is the emphasis on buying locally, whether it’s produce or meat, more so than we’ve ever seen.”
Nevertheless, the challenges she faces mean that “you’re just making a living.”
“Years ago you did a lot better than you do now. I can see how when these places close, they don’t open again.”