Demanding and expensive new government regulations are driving small B.C. slaughterhouses out of business or underground, and farmers are joining the exodus.
"I've spent $70,000 to get my government inspection, but they keep moving the goal posts. It's a joke. They're making us break the law," a B.C. slaughterhouse operator said.
On Oct. 1, anyone who slaughters animals and processes meat to be sold within B.C., must meet the requirements of the province's new Meat Inspection Regulation.
The regulation covers everything from the diameter of slaughterhouse floor drains to the height of rails that enclose the animals.
There are even provisions that meat inspectors, who must be present whenever animals are slaughtered, must have their own office and washroom.
The slaughterhouse operator said even if he fails the inspection, he will continue to butcher animals.
"I've got five kids to feed," the operator said.
He said some small abattoirs in B.C. that operate one or two days a week won't do the costly upgrades and may work under the table.
The operator said that the cost of the upgrades to his business mean that he'll raise his price to kill, cut and wrap a cow to $150 from $85.
On a good day, he can process 20 cows, pigs or sheep.
Under B.C.'s Food Safety Act, violations of the new rules could bring a fine of up to $25,000 for a first offence.
Many farmers say these rules and others to come will decimate a once vibrant and varied farm community.
"On the Island as a whole, we're dead. Hundreds of farms have shut down," Auke Elzinga said. "With no slaughter facilities, there's nowhere to sell your animals."
Mr. Elzinga, 62, has been farming for more than 40 years in the Cowichan Valley, near Duncan. At one point, he had 80 Hereford cow-calf pairs.
Now, he has 50 pairs, and his 62-hectare farm, surrounded by vineyards, is for sale.
He won't pay to ship his cattle to Lower Mainland abattoirs.
"I'm on my way out. The cost of doing business on the Island is too high," Mr. Elzinga said.
Joining him are feed stores and other small businesses that cater to the agriculture industry. In Sooke, for example, Freda's Feed and Farm Supplies will close on June 16 because so many local farmers have pulled the plug on livestock.
On May 26, Vancouver Island farmers and farm activists met in Nanoose Bay to discuss the crisis.
Organizer Kathryn Gemmell said that about 50 per cent of the mid-Island farmers who produce food are quitting this year, mostly because of government regulations.
And in June, the Ministry of the Environment plans to force slaughterhouses to install expensive wastewater treatment facilities.
In July, new disposal methods will be introduced for animal waste products - known as specified risk material - to fight the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad-cow disease.
B.C. Agriculture Minister Pat Bell said the changes are necessary.
"We want to ensure human health is protected," he said.
This new regime will guarantee the safety and reputation of B.C.'s food from animal diseases like BSE and avian flu, said Anthony Toth, chief executive officer of the B.C. Food Processors Association.
BSE doesn't consider boundaries and can appear in feedlots or hobby farms, said Mr. Toth, whose organization is assisting with the transition to the new meat regulation.
But Saltspring Island farmer Rollie Cook said that small-scale B.C. farms and abattoirs have rarely been a source of disease. The farmers know their animals and the butchers know the farmers.
"There's lots of responsibility in the old way of doing things," said Mr. Cook, who served two terms as an Alberta MLA under Peter Lougheed.
Mr. Cook raises sheep, pigs, ducks and geese, and grows vegetables and fruits on his eight-hectare Redwing Farm. The former advertising executive said B.C.'s government isn't listening to people like him.
"The new rules are a way of getting rid of small agriculture. The little guys are getting slaughtered," Mr. Cook said.
Mr. Bell acknowledges the transition has been difficult, which is why its start date was extended by almost two years.
Shifting from an unregulated, "do-your-own-thing" slaughter system to one that focuses on high quality takes some getting used to, Mr. Bell said.
In 2006, the province estimated there were 50 unlicensed facilities but already there are 20 provincially licensed slaughterhouses. Another 38 are working through licensing requirements, Mr. Bell said.
The province has provided a $5-million fund to help slaughter facilities with the upgrades. So far, only half of those dollars have been applied for, Mr. Toth said.
Before the new regulation, local governments were in charge of inspecting slaughterhouses, and a patchwork tableau prevailed, said Larry Copeland, a program director with the B.C Centre for Disease Control.
The BCCDC is enforcing the meat regulation and has contracted federal Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors to do the inspections.