Ranch Musings columnist David Zirnhelt. (File Photo)

Ranch Musings: More on meat processing

Columnist David Zirnhelt writes about beef production and the local supply chain

David Zirnhelt

Observer Contributor

I ended one of my last articles on the note that to enhance local food security involving meat protein, the parts of the supply chain need to work together: producers, processers and retailers.

This morning I awoke to a link sent to me by an avid reader of the BC media (in this case the Vancouver Sun) which quoted the Small-Scale Meat Processors president, Julia Smith.

Then there is the BC Abattoir Association representing the government inspected facilities who currently certify most of the local supply of processed meats for resale i.e. retail sales.

Some on-farm killing is allowed but not for resale in retail outlets.

There has been much debate about the necessity for official inspection of the facilities and the operation of these tiny operations. None of them are big enough to fill much of the demand or

supply a living wage for any farming family.

However, as has been pointed out by small scale operators in the meat business, the risk is lower in the smaller plants, and if there is a problem, it will not be widespread because of the local nature of their market.

Big plants put millions of kilos of meat into the massive retail outlets.

This recent Sun article quotes Julia Smith as saying that “Most of the 2,900 food processors have avoided significant problems with COVID-19. Many are small businesses with niche products.”

She also makes the valid point that “small producers pay closer attention to animal welfare; traceability is enhanced when there are fewer stops in the supply chain.”

The exception is the outbreaks in at least two of the BC poultry processors.

A frequent commentator on food processing in Canada , professor Sylvain Charlebois of Dalhousie University, says that some of the biggest meat-processing plants in the country are aging and working conditions are crowded.

The newest plant, he says, that was hit with COVID-19 is 31 years old. Many are even older. Investments in renovations have been mostly patchwork, but not mindful of possible pandemics.

In Europe apparently there have been fewer problems than in North America because their food economies are more regionalized and the plants are smaller and more modern.

It seems that the average age of a food plant in Europe is 17 years while here it is over 30.

That is not to say that everything is fine, since plant floors need renovation to accommodate social distancing.

Design of the existing food processing system has focused on cheap food. A new era of investment will be focusing on safe supply. That will put upward pressure on prices.

Will our components of the meat supply chain arrange its business relationships (strategic alliances) and form value chains ( where everyone in the chain gets a fair return and shares in the upside and downside risks) which can also be “supply chains” ?

Supply chains are formed by the market place transactions (price point) along the chain. Value chains are formed by different players sharing values and collaborating on matters other than just price at any given stage of production- certain quality and production practices.

David Zirnhelt is a rancher and member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association. He is also chair of the Advisory Committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching Program at Thompson Rivers University Williams Lake.

READ MORE: Ranch Musings: Diversity and Opportunity in the meat chain


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