The pandemic-related disruptions to our packing plants have triggered a lot of questions about our beef supply chain. Much of the discussion centres around why we don’t have more small abattoirs to spread the risk to our domestic meat supply.
Tackling this issue is a little like eating an elephant, one bite at a time. For that first bite, we’re going to Farmersville Community Abattoir in Athens, Ontario, to find out what it takes to run an abattoir.
Farmersville is a provincially inspected facility, owned and operated by Sarah and Chad Hunt. Chad’s family operates Corad Farms, a Limousin operation, at Waba Road, Pakenham, Ontario. The Hunt family recently received the Angus Campbell Award from the Ontario Limousin Association, which recognizes a farm that uses and promotes Limousin in their commercial business. For more on their farm, see the Purely Purebred column in the June 2021 issue of Canadian Cattlemen.
When Sarah came on the scene, the farm was well-established and the Hunts had been selling beef directly to neighbours for several years. But direct sales were about to ramp up.
As sales ballooned, the Hunts hit a processing bottleneck. That bottleneck narrowed even more in 2019 when one of their local processors had to cancel bookings due to a medical issue.
There was another processor nearby, but it was located in Shawville, Quebec. Because the Shawville plant is provincially inspected rather than federally, Sarah couldn’t sell beef processed there in Ontario.
Next, the Hunts looked into building their own abattoir from scratch. But that was a $3 to $4 million touch, Sarah said, and it would be very hard to secure enough financing.
Then a Farmersville customer contacted Sarah through Facebook to let her know the abattoir was for sale. Farmersville was outside the area they were searching, so Sarah hadn’t known about it. After talking to Barbara Schaefer, who owned it at the time, the Hunts decided to buy the abattoir. They began processing in November 2019, and by February 2020 all the paperwork related to transferring the ownership was wrapped. Farmersville was theirs.
Inspection from nose to tail
So far, the Hunts haven’t had major problems at the abattoir. That’s a good thing, because if something went wrong and they ran out of time on slaughter days, they’d have to keep any live animals on site until the next slaughter day a week later. While the Hunts do their best, there’s always the risk of unexpected issues, such as equipment breaking down unexpectedly.
"It's a very delicate system and it's got to be systemically perfect," Sarah said.
One thing that struck me was how proactive Sarah seems to be. She's focused on taking ownership over things she can control, whether it's plant maintenance and cleanliness, or their relationship with the inspectors from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA).
Sarah also gives a lot of credit to their crew, who keep the plant in tip-top shape. They know the requirements and do a great job. For example, their lead butcher, Bernie Barber, was the original owner who built Farmersville.
Farmerville cuts and wraps on Mondays and Tuesdays. Thursdays and Fridays are part cut days, but also maintenance days. Slaughter day is Wednesday, and they typically aim for 30 to 33 animals total. Twelve to 15 of those animals are beef cattle, with the balance being sheep, goats and pigs. Before the animals are slaughtered, the meat inspectors do what they call a “pre-op” inspection. They check that everything is clean and free of debris. Something as small as a smear on a cooler door will have to be cleaned before slaughter begins.
Once the plant is deemed in “good sanitary standing,” the inspectors look at each live animal as it comes in, ensuring it’s able to walk, isn't distressed and generally looks healthy. They watch the slaughter process to make sure it’s done humanely.
Next they watch how carcasses are handled. Workers need to wash their hands frequently, especially when switching activities, to avoid cross-contamination. Coolers have to stay at a certain temperature. The meat itself is inspected. Organs are also inspected for parasites, lesions and other issues. If they’re deemed unfit for consumption, the abattoir has to dispose of them.
BSE meant tight regulations around handling specified risk materials (SRMs), especially in animals older than 30 months (OTMs). Canada hasn’t had a case of BSE in several years, so the World Health Organization recently deemed us as at “negligible risk” for BSE.
How that will affect abattoirs and packers remains to be seen, but it’s expected regulations will ease. Negligible risk status is "going to be a huge industry game-changer because we pay so much money, extra money, for disposal of over-thirty-months beef remains,” said Sarah.
There’s also a lot of extra work that goes with slaughtering and butchering OTM beef. For example, they have to change the floor drains, put plugs in the heads where they’ve used the stun gun, remove spines, clean the splitting saw before they process another carcass and mark the carcass with blue ink. They even have a designated, orange-handled knife that is used only for severing the spinal cord while removing the head in OTM beef. As soon as they’ve cut the spinal cord, the orange-handled knife is disinfected and returned to its place on the wall.
Sarah said she's anxious to see changes in how they have to handle OTM animals.
Labour one sticking point
Sarah said they need government assistance to bring more processors online, or to encourage existing ones to expand. That means more grants for upgrades and expansions.
She'd also like to see the grant process sped up and simplified. She shared a story of applying for a grant for new coolers. It took six months to get a response. In the meantime, summer was approaching and they needed the new coolers to keep operating, so they used their own money. Because they bought the coolers before the grant was approved, they nearly lost the grant, she said. But if they hadn't bought the coolers before getting the grant, they wouldn't have been able to keep operating into the summer.
It's not all down to the government. The industry also needs more people willing to “sign on the dotted line,” she said, who believe in the industry. And, like many other ag sectors, staffing “is a huge issue.”
“It's not an industry that is highly sought-after. It's not well-recognized at community colleges."
While there are still butcher shops in every town, the butchers are ageing, and there aren’t enough young people coming in as successors, she said. Every abattoir she knows has staffing issues.
"We do need more plants, but in order to do that, we need more people."
This is the first in an evolving series of blog posts about smaller plants and abattoirs. If you have suggestions for people to talk to or related topics to cover, shoot me an email at [email protected] Many thanks to Sarah Hunt for taking time from her busy week to share her experience.