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B.C. renews food safety debate for local producers

Andrea Gunner checks turkey pens during a break from slaughtering a batch of pastured turkeys for local sales. Andrea and her husband Steve raise pastured turkeys at Rosebank Farm in Armstrong, B.C. They are among dozens of local meat producing farms fighting for the right to avoid large scale distribution systems and sell their product locally.

Craig Pulsifer/The Globe and Mail

The growing outcry over an E. coli outbreak in Alberta has sharpened debate over meat processing and regulation in neighbouring British Columbia.

In an Oct. 7 letter to new provincial Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick, B.C. poultry producer Andrea Gunner refers to "current food safety events" in relation to some producers' demands that more small-scale licences be made available.

Some producers, including Ms. Gunner, have been pushing the province to allow more on-farm slaughtering facilities. They say such practices would enhance access to local food and support local producers without compromising public health and safety.

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An E. coli outbreak at Alberta's XL Foods Ltd. has resulted in the recall of hundreds of products across Canada and the United States. Ten Canadians have been sickened thus far by tainted beef linked to the XL Foods Ltd. plant.

"Current food safety events have raised the question, is our [B.C.'s] meat-processing system safe?" Ms. Gunner said in the letter, a copy of which was provided to The Globe & Mail. "The point has been made that as line speed increases, food quality decreases. … Livestock producers and their customers in the North Okanagan (as well as the South Cariboo and throughout the Kootenays) wish to have processing options which address both food safety and humane animal welfare, which includes on-farm slaughter."

Mr. Letnick, who was named agriculture minister in September, has said he is considering producers' requests for more on-farm slaughter capacity but that such capacity has to be balanced with public health concerns.

Producers in areas including the North Okanagan and the Cariboo regional districts have been pushing for such changes for several years.

A potential overhaul would aim to balance the interests of small producers such as Ms. Gunner – who recently teamed up with three other local poultry producers to invest in a mobile slaughterhouse – with the interests of slaughterhouse operators who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring their operations up to provincial standards. The province has spent more than $11-million to assist operational upgrades.

The tension dates back to 2004, when B.C. brought in new meat inspection regulations. Those regulations, crafted in the wake of a 2004 bovine spongiform encephalopathy outbreak and other food safety scares, required all meat for human consumption in B.C. to be inspected. The system created three classes of licences and became mandatory in 2007.

Almost from the beginning, the system was controversial, with some producers saying it would force small-scale processing underground and weaken regional economies.

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In response to such concerns, the government introduced two new classes of licences, D and E, in 2010 that were supposed to enhance local meat sales. Class D licences allow producers to slaughter up to 25 animals for sale to area retailers and to consumers. Class E – direct sales licences – provide for slaughter of up to 10 animals for sale to local buyers.

But the Class D licences were made available to only some parts of the province, such as Haida Gwaii. And conditions for the E licences made them difficult to obtain, Ms. Gunner and others say. Mr. Letnick is now being lobbied to make those licences more readily available.

In the Cariboo Regional District, producers have come up with a proposal for a pilot project that would contract local veterinarians to inspect meat slaughtered for personal and farm-gate sales.

Most B.C.-raised cattle are killed and processed outside of B.C., said Kevin Boon, general manager of the B.C. Cattlemen's Association.

Since the meat inspection regime changed in 2004, there has been a decline in the number of abattoirs, and producers have had to travel longer distances – and pay more – to get their cattle to a regional facility, he said.

As part of that transition, the oversight and processes at larger plants has also improved, he said.

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"You have to look at the whole picture," Mr. Boon said, adding that small, farm-gate sales are not necessarily safer than big industrial operations. "They're saying, 'I know my product, I know it's safe' – I caution them that's a false sense of security."

B.C.'s review of its slaughterhouse rules comes as the province was already reviewing its meat-inspection system to prepare for a transition next year.

Since the 1980s, meat inspection has been provided by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency at provincially licensed facilities. That responsibility will shift to the province by the end of 2013.

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