Food Policy Fail – British Columbia’s Meat Inspection Regulations (Editorial)
In tackling the subject of British Columbia’s meat inspection regulations, I must begin by admitting that I am not the likeliest author. For starters, I’m a vegetarian. Secondly, although someday I would love to keep urban chickens, my agricultural experience is pretty much limited to growing herbs and tomatoes on my apartment patio. However, the economic viability of BC farming affects everyone in the province who eats, including urbanites. Draconian provincial meat inspection regulations create a barrier to local economic development in BC’s small towns and rural places, and to food security throughout the province. Local food activists contend that the BC Food Safety Act’s stringent requirements for livestock processing are an untenable, province-wide food policy fail.
Since September 2007, slaughter and processing of meats for sale in BC can only take place in provincially or federally licensed abattoirs. This disallows so-called “farm gate sales” in which meat is purchased directly from the producer. According to a report funded by the North Okanagan Regional District (10-page PDF behind the link), the cost of upgrading pre-existing meat processing facilities to new provincial standards ranges from $150,000, to 300,000, well out of financial reach for small-scale producers. Additionally, the licensing process for upgraded slaughter facilities is long and complicated. Since large parts of the province now lack licensed facilities, many small-scale farmers face difficulties accessing legal slaughter for their livestock. For instance, the North Okanagan study found that no legal custom poultry processor remains in a region where, before the legislation was changed, small-scale processors had capacity for 60,000 chickens and turkeys annually. Transporting a few animals a hundred kilometres or more for processing hurts small farmers’ already narrow profit margins and market share in an increasingly large-scale industrial food system.
Part of the difficulty in demonstrating how BC’s meat inspection regulations affect local food production comes from the fact that some small-scale meat processing operations continue under government inspectors’ radar. Farmers who access these unlicensed processing facilities and local clients who rely on illegal meat production are naturally disinclined to publicize their experience lest these operations be shut down and their equipment confiscated. Politically, the provincial opposition party supports the re-legalization of farm gate sales, but the issue has largely gone silent in the political arena since a bill introduced in 2009 failed to pass in the legislature.
The current requirements of BC’s Food Safety Act ostensibly protect the public from contaminated meat, but local food activists contend that transporting animals over long distances to mass processing facilities actually degrades the quality of meat as well as needlessly contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Ultimately, the issue comes down to a judgment about whether public health is indeed at increased risk from farm gate meat sales and, if so, whether allowing people to voluntarily assume these risks by supporting local meat producers is justified in the interests of promoting local food security. In a province where the average age of farmers is 57 and most farm operators must supplement their income with an off-farm job, the security of small-scale local food production seems very tenuous indeed.