If you haven't done so already, please read my earlier blog post outlining Sask's provincial meat inspection system before reading this one.
When Merle Friesen first built his slaughter plant, it was inspected by Sask Health. While he emphasizes that he is only speaking from his personal experience, the Sask Health inspection he describes is not nearly as rigorous as Sask Ag’s Domestic Meat Inspection Program.
“They came out once as we were building the facility and had a look. Once we were up and running they did not come back until I asked them to. I saw the health inspector once in that five-year period,” he says. He adds that others say their health inspectors come around fairly often, but that wasn’t his experience.
Merle eventually decided to join Sask Agriculture's Domestic Meat Inspection Program, partly because at that time, Saskatoon bylaws required all meat sold within city limits be inspected. This is no longer the case, as Saskatoon and other cities decided meat inspection should be a provincial issue, and removed their bylaws. This makes sense, but it eliminated part of the incentive to join the more rigourous Sask Ag program.
Fortunately, many aspects of Sask Health's meat inspection have improved over the years. In 2012, the provincial auditor looked at the provincial meat inspection system. She found the Domestic Meat Inspection Program had “effective processes...to regulate the production of meat that is safe for human consumption” when it’s handled by the Ag-inspected plants.
The auditor also concluded in 2012 “that the Ministry of Health did not have effective processes to regulate the production of meat that is safe for human consumption when it is handled by the 76 inspected slaughter plants within Saskatchewan.”
The auditor made 10 recommendations to improve the meat inspection system:
- The provincial government should formally assess risks related to uninspected meat and consider updating its regulations for the production of meat that is safe for human consumption.
- Ministry of Agriculture review its standards for regulating meat production and formally approve them.
- Ministry of Agriculture update its public website to include a list of all the slaughter plants registered in the Saskatchewan Domestic Meat Inspection Program.
- Ministry of Agriculture provide a report quarterly to its senior management on the causes of sanitation problems in slaughter plants and actions taken to enforce The Regulations Governing the Inspection of Meat in Domestic Abattoirs, 1968.
- Ministry of Health, consulting with the Ministry of Agriculture and regional health authorities, develop and approve detailed sanitation standards for slaughter plant operations.
- Ministry of Health obtain more information to help it assess risks to meat safety, including the number of animals slaughtered, in slaughter plants licensed under The Sanitation Regulations, 1964.
- Ministry of Health confirm that regional health authorities take appropriate action to ensure that high and medium risk slaughter plants correct identified problems that could reduce the safety of the meat produced.
- Ministry of Health analyze regional trends in public complaints about slaughter plants and/or contaminated meat.
- Ministry of Health update its public website to include the inspection results for all slaughter plants licensed under The Sanitation Regulations, 1964.
- Ministry of Health provide a summary report quarterly to its senior management on the causes of sanitation problems arising at slaughter plants and the actions taken to enforce The Sanitation Regulations, 1964.
The provincial auditor completed three follow-ups after that initial audit, and that persistence yielded some very good results. Judy Ferguson, who was the provincial auditor up until her retirement in late June, told me the government has implemented all of the provincial auditor's recommendations, which is good news. Sask Health has created more prescriptive regulations and implemented slaughter plant standards.
Judy told me that Health inspectors now visit plants annually, and follow up on problems and complaints. There’s also an online map that allows people to look up a plant and view its inspection results, improving transparency in the system.
It’s reassuring to hear that all the auditor’s recommendations have been implemented. You can read the final report online.
However, here’s my bottom line: While I'm comfortable buying meat directly from a producer I know that was processed in a Sask Health-inspected plant, I do not want to unknowlingly order it from a restaurant menu or buy it in a grocery store.
Sask Health still does not inspect the live animals before slaughter or the meat afterwards. If I know the person who raised the animal, I can gauge whether to trust that they'll only sell me meat from animals fit to be slaughtered and eaten. I may come to the same conclusion if I know the plant owner and staff. I can't do that from a restaurant table if I don't even know where the meat came from (and frankly, I don't want to even want to think about it when I'm sitting down for a meal). I know the government conducted its own risk assessment, but this doesn't pass my personal risk assessment.
I've thought about options for informing people of these two streams when they’re buying meat, but I can’t imagine an effective way to do that. There’s no way to capture this on a label. It’s confusing as heck, and no one wants to wade through this quagmire over and over again.
I think most, if not all, large grocery chains and restaurants would voluntarily source from federally inspected plants or the Domestic Meat Inspection plants, partly becuase of liability and partly because of the volume they're buying. Maybe every single restaurant and grocery store in Saskatchewan voluntarily does this, no matter the size or volume of meat they're selling. But if that’s the case, why don’t the regulations reflect that?
Let me put it another way. With all the emphasis on local and regional food, why don’t we have regulations that encourage not only small abattoirs that can accommodate farm-direct sales, but also investment in plants that can process large volumes of meat for retail, restaurants and institutions, all while maintaining or even improving consumer confidence? Why not do that by offering different levels of market access, depending on which inspection stream plants opt into? And if we had these regulations in place, couldn’t we then start pushing (again) for interprovincial sales of meat that had gone through the more rigourous system?