By Connor Lynch
COBDEN — Demand for local food got a major steroid boost from COVID-19. Many consumers, leery of crowded grocery stores and nervous about empty shelves, turned to buying directly from the farmer.
The time seems ripe to bring back an old idea: mobile abattoirs, where the farmers can slaughter an animal on-farm and sell directly to the consumer, rather than sending it to a government-inspected plant. After all, small abattoirs have struggled to keep up with demand and many are booked through to 2021.
Alberta legalized on-farm slaughter and sale without inspection last month. But there seems to be little appetite for same easing of restrictions in Ontario. “Whether or not we would pursue similar changes here in Ontario has not been discussed broadly or decided at this point,” Beef Farmers of Ontario’s communications manager LeaAnne Wuermli told Farmers Forum last month.
A small amount of on-farm processing does happen in Ontario. Cobden-area full-time farmer Clare Martin runs a mobile slaughter business on the side, where he’ll slaughter and butcher an animal on site. But Ontario’s regulations require the meat to stay on-farm. He processes about an animal a week, mostly cows and pigs. He’s booked solid from September to January 2021 processing backyard pigs, he said. The rest of the year, he mostly processes beef animals for farmers to eat. It could easily be full-time work, he said.
He’s been in business for over a decade, having mostly gotten started processing animals with broken legs and other injuries, meaning they won’t be accepted at an abattoir. “But farmers started getting me for healthy ones too. It’s a little less work for them, you don’t have to load it up and haul it,” Martin said.
He thinks Alberta-style changes could be good for the province. “It should be right from the farmer to the consumer. If there’s a problem, the (buyer) knows where it came from.”
Not everyone agrees. Jeff Bennet, who took over Reiche Meat Products in Pembroke three years ago, said he’d be in the mobile business himself if he wasn’t so busy with his own operation. But he doesn’t think farmers should be able to sell meat slaughtered on-site.
Bennett’s been in the slaughter business for 22 years and said he knew farmers way back when who “would tell their kids, ‘that’s not for eating, but for selling.’ If it wasn’t good enough for them, (it was) still good enough for neighbours.” When an inspector comes into an abattoir and inspects a side of meat, he has no incentive to make sure the abattoir can still sell it. But having a farmer inspect the meat introduces a conflict-of-interest: he’s losing money if he decides it’s not fit to sell, Bennett said.
Bennett sees some room for flexibility. Sharing meat from on-farm slaughtered livestock with a family member down the road without “smuggling” it is reasonable, he said. But that’s as far as he goes. “I don’t think it would ever be a smart idea to make on-farm stuff for sale.”
Sarah Corad, who runs the Athens Abattoir, agreed. Inspectors are stretched thin and travel long distances already, she said, adding that stopping at farms where considerably fewer animals would be slaughtered just isn’t feasible. The farmers would have to be the inspectors, and that’s just asking for trouble, she said. “There needs to be accountability and traceability.”