Is it turnaround time for Ontario’s abattoirs?

Staffing and regulations are key to meat processing sector success

by Peter Hohenadel
Better Farming

Many Ontario abattoirs have disappeared over the past decade, confirms Dr. Sylvain Charlebois.

He’s a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax. He’s also a well-known commentator on agri-food matters.

While he was on the faculty of the college of business and economics at the University of Guelph in 2014, Charlebois co-authored a study on Ontario abattoirs. Too many regulations affected these small plants and they couldn’t compete, Charlebois and his co-author Amit Summan concluded.

“What was missing was knowledge of how to manage abattoirs. The financial acumen wasn’t there all the time,” Charlebois says. “We concluded that a lot of abattoir managers didn’t have the skills required. They had poor documentation and it didn’t seem like they were running a business.

“Now they need those skills because of how quickly the regulations are changing.”

Despite these challenges, “there’s a great opportunity for provincially licensed abattoirs to provide what consumers are looking for,” he adds. “The livestock market is much more fragmented than ever before. People are looking for different things like grass-fed versus corn-fed.

“The more our supply chain can supply these market niches, the more satisfied consumers will be and the more willing they will be to support the sector. These opportunities are being missed right now,” Charlebois says.

The sector must address the critical factors of education and staffing, he adds. “Conestoga College had a (meat processing) program and invested millions of dollars but nobody was applying. Meat processing is not a well-known sector. It operates in obscurity, away from the eyes of consumers,” Charlebois explains.

Some new Canadians have migrated to the sector, he adds. Many of these new Canadians have turned to halal meat processing, where great demand exists to supply Muslim consumers. More than one million (practising) Muslims reside in Canada, so halal meats represent a great opportunity, he says.

The situation for small-scale meat processing is different in Europe, Charlebois explains.

“Food economies in Europe are much more regionalized so small-scale abattoirs are almost a natural thing there,” he says. “Self-sufficiency is more of a priority there. (Europeans) don’t really think about food in the global sense that we do here. Their culture supports small-scale abattoirs and size doesn’t really matter.

“In Canada, economies of scale play a much bigger role,” he adds.

Overall, however, Charlebois is optimistic that the abattoir sector can turn around.

“We need to talk more about processing,” he says. “The sector is struggling but it is so vital to our agri-food economy. Without a vibrant food processing sector, it becomes a challenge to grow our agri-food economy.” BF

    JackF/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

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