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food production

Cattle in pasture beside XL Foods' Lakeside Packers plant at Brooks, Alberta on Monday, Oct. 1st, 2012, 2012.LARRY MACDOUGAL/The Canadian Press

British Columbia's new agriculture minister is weighing changes to the provincial meat inspection regime that could open the door to more regional slaughterhouses and an increased number of "farm-gate" operations allowed to kill and sell a small number of animals each year.

The potential changes would represent a further easing of a regime that was introduced in 2004 and revised in 2010 after producers said the stringent new regulations were forcing small operators out of business and weakening regional food production.

"Since becoming minister, I have been discussing this issue with producers, processors and with staff," B.C. Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick said Wednesday in an e-mailed statement. "And I will continue to work with them to find solutions that can meet their requirements and ensure health standards are maintained."

Mr. Letnick was named agriculture minister in a September cabinet shuffle and assumes the portfolio as responsibility for meat inspection – previously under the Ministry of Health – is shifting to the Ministry of Agriculture.

He has also stepped into the role as meat inspection and slaughter procedures have come under scrutiny as a result of the E. coli outbreak linked to XL Foods in neighbouring Alberta. The plant, one of the biggest in Canada, processes up to 4,000 head of cattle a day.

Producers in some parts of B.C. have been lobbying Mr. Letnick, and other officials before him, to issue more licences to small facilities.

B.C.'s Meat Inspection Regulation – drafted in the wake of a bovine spongiform encephalopathy outbreak that devastated the Canadian beef industry – requires all meat for human consumption in B.C. to pass through a licensed, inspected slaughterhouse. The regulations resulted in a backlash from producers and consumers, particularly in areas such as the Sunshine Coast, Vancouver Island and Haida Gwai that didn't have convenient access to licensed plants.

In 2010, the province amended the MIR by adding two new licence categories designed to allow producers in remote and rural areas to slaughter animals and sell the meat directly to consumers.

But those licences are in short supply in some parts of the province.

"There have been no licences granted for this area other than one granted to larger producers when these rules changed some years ago," Patrick Nicol, chairman of the Regional District of North Okanagan, said Wednesday.

Producers in the region would like to see up to eight new licences for small farm sites along with a licence for a larger meat processing facility, Mr. Nicol said.

B.C. is also reviewing its meat inspection system to prepare for a transition next year, when the Canadian Food Inspection Agency – which has been providing meat inspection services at provincially licensed slaughter plants under contract since the 1980s – will stop providing that service.

A July, 2012, report of industry consultations on B.C.'s Abattoir Inspection System noted that producers support continued public funding of the meat inspection program and are worried that inspection costs could be downloaded to producers.

"Producers emphasized the narrow profit margins experienced by B.C. farms and raised concerns that if abattoirs had to pay for inspection, the costs would be downloaded to them through increased service fees. Many abattoir operators said their businesses are recovering from the significant costs associated with licensing and could not withstand further expenses," the report said.

Meat from provincially licensed facilities can only be sold within B.C. The province also has federally licensed plants that can ship goods outside the province.