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The Meat of the Matter

Large scale slaughterhouse regulations for small scale operators is ruffling feathers

by Moira Donovan

Heavy-handed approach to small-scale slaughterhouses by Department of Agriculture may backfire in many ways, farmers fear.  It may cause a return to do-it-yourself backyard slaughter sessions. "Not everyone can just kill an animal humanely," one expert warns.  Photo licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Heavy-handed approach to small-scale slaughterhouses by Department of Agriculture may backfire in many ways, farmers fear. It may cause a return to do-it-yourself backyard slaughter sessions. "Not everyone can just kill an animal humanely," one expert warns. Photo licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

"There’s no taste like home grown turkey," states John Muir. "Have you ever grown your own vegetables? It’s the same thing."

For nearly three decades Muir had been taking his turkeys to Pictou butcher Gordon Fraser. "We always had 110 percent satisfaction," says Muir, who farms cattle, pigs and a small number of turkeys – at present he has five. "The only thing missing was the 'grade A' tag."

In August, Pictou butcher Gordon Fraser (along with other small-scale slaughter operations referred to as ‘custom operators)’was banned by the Nova Scotia Turkey Producers Marketing Board from slaughtering turkeys because he is neither provincially nor federally licensed.

Although the Department of Agriculture notes that these requirements are not new, custom operators until now were never challenged.

For Turkey Farmers of Nova Scotia (TFNS), recent attempts to enforce the regulations are a matter of health and safety. But farmers like John Muir express doubt, asking: "What’s safer, a do-it-yourselfer with an axe, a knife and a bucket of hot water, or taking it to one of these slaughter houses where people know what they’re doing and have the facilities?"

Dr. Amy Fitzgerald, professor of Sociology at the University of Windsor and author of the paper ‘A Social History of the Slaughterhouse’, sees a similar disconnect in the industry as a whole.

"The irony is that governments want large facilities to do the slaughtering, but at the same time they’re not really thinking about why we have these issues with food contamination, and part of that is the size of the facility and the industry," says Fitzgerald.

In order to squeeze as much as possible from the thin margin of profit that accompanies industrial slaughter, Fitzgerald says, large slaughterhouses work at a furious pace, sometimes allowing for the unsafe handling of carcasses.

For Jane Morrigan, small farmer, instructor at Dalhousie Faculty of Agriculture in Truro and consultant on humane slaughter, the situation is even more complex.

Morrigan, whose accomplishments include having completed her MSc under the supervision of the grande dame of humane slaughter, Temple Grandin, believes that the enforcing of licensing requirements presents first of all a risk to animal welfare.

Pointing out that turkeys are large, powerful birds, Morrigan suggests that "there is a skill set that takes a lot of practice to perfect when it comes to killing animals, it is a profession. Not everyone can just kill an animal humanely." Inexperienced individuals, she notes, can cause increased suffering both to themselves and the bird.

Morrigan adds that she sees advantages to small operations being licensed, but insists that rules have to be appropriate to the size.

It’s unreasonable, she thinks, for operations like Gordon Fraser’s to be subject to the same regulations as larger facilities, which may include mandatory additional facilities such as a separate building for red meat. "Gordon has a very clean operation, it is old, but it’s very clean," she says.

To suggest that people return to backyard slaughter ignores attitudes that have been shaped by a century of industrialization in the industry, Fitzgerald suggests.

"I have a feeling that a lot of individual producers would be uncomfortable with doing the slaughter themselves," Fitzgerald says. "One things that research has found is that even though producers are obviously involved in this whole system of creating animals that are then slaughtered, being able to send them off to slaughter helps them to disassociate from it."

Moreover, Fitzgerald adds, regulations in Canada around the conditions of transport for animals bound for slaughter "are really quite weak", meaning that local options may better protect animal welfare.

Morrigan echoes this, noting that even for small producers, taking their turkeys farther for slaughter carries a host of problems from increased stress to exposure to heat, humidity and dehydration – all of which are not only bad for the bird, but can also have an effect on the taste and quality of the end product.

Regardless of whether regulations mean backyard slaughter or longer trips to larger abattoirs, Morrigan suggests that the impact of these regulations could extend far beyond individual producers.

Everybody agrees that we need to attract young farmers. In some ways, Nova Scotia has succeeded at this, as the only province in Canada in the 2011 census to increase the acreage of land being farmed, the number of farms and the number of ‘new’ farmers, such as children succeeding parents or entrepreneurs coming from different disciplines.

Though their capacity is small – 42% had farms had sales of less than $10,000 dollars annually - provincial farms play an essential role in rural economies.

For observers such as Jane Morrigan, however, enforcing regulations on custom operators send a mixed message "TFNS taking this particular action at this particular time, it defies ethics in terms of animal welfare, it defies rural economics and it defies the interest that the public has, that people are interested in supporting agriculture and in being involved in local agriculture."

Morrigan feels that this is especially true when the review board – in this case, TFNS - is also responsible for enforcing regulations. "TFNS have a conflict of interest when they step in and try and prevent smaller growers from raising and selling turkeys. Young people are excited about agriculture and I want to see them encouraged and doors opened to them, and this is a display of close-mindedness and power."

As in any industry, Morrigan adds, monopolizing of slaughter by larger abattoirs can have a depressing effect on diversity and innovation. When dealing with issues such as humane slaughter and the viability of small-scale agriculture there’s safety in numbers. "There’s an advantage in agriculture and to society in general if there’s’ more people interested in raising food and in agriculture."

For Jane Morrigan, the hundreds of people who’ve attended community meetings in defense of Gordon Fraser suggest that there is widespread recognition of the role small producers play in creating sustainable local economies and supply chains.

Not all small farmers see these regulations as the end of the line. John Muir says that if anything, the regulations will only harden existing farmers’ resolve. "We butchered our own 25 years ago. I think this is just going to strengthen the small producers. People are just more determined."

Part of this, Muir thinks, is that the movement to eat local is an idea that’s got legs. "It’s a movement that’s growing every year."


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Topics: Food
1058 words

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