by BETTER FARMING STAFF
Ontario’s Tory agriculture critic says the provincial government fell $7.8 million short in delivering funding to help abattoirs and standalone meat processors adjust to new provincial food safety regulations.
Oxford MPP Ernie Hardeman raised the issue in the provincial legislature on Wednesday. He says the province committed $25.3 million to the multi-year program but released only $17.5 million. The program, introduced in 2006, wrapped up at the end of March.
The regulations came into effect in stages in 2005 and 2006 and involved licensing standalone meat processing operations and strengthening process controls at meat processing facilities. Standalone meat processors include businesses that process products like bacon, smoked ham and deli meats as well as businesses that produce roasts, chops and steaks to sell to wholesalers, food services and retailers.
Carol Mitchell, Ontario’s agriculture minister, confirms that not all of the money allocated was spent. “The program was demand driven,” she explains.
Hardeman says small abattoirs and standalone processors are struggling to meet the stringent new requirements and he’d like to see the remaining money in the program released to them. More needs to be done if the province wants to keep local abattoirs and small, freestanding meat processors, he says.
Mitchell says operators can access some money through other programs. Ontario’s chief veterinarian, Deb Stark, is working “through the issues” with abattoir representatives to see what else can be done. Money dedicated specifically to extend the assistance program, so far, is not on the table.
“I would not want to speak to what the results were of the discussions,” Mitchell says.
In March, a group representing smaller abattoir and freestanding meat processors called Concerned Abattoir and Stand Alone Operators presented Stark with a survey that outlined issues smaller businesses were facing. Conducted with the assistance of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, the survey was sent to 546 licensed abattoirs and standalone meat processors.
Conclusions drawn from the 135 responses included:
* many felt they could not keep up with new government regulations
* inspectors’ interpretations of regulations are arbitrary
* the regulatory burden erodes their business’ value
* there is a perception that the industry organization, Ontario Independent Meat Processors, does not represent the interests of smaller operators and is too closely tied to government.
Spokesperson Louis Roesch says the group will meet again with Stark in June. Roesch, a hog producer who has a standalone meat processing business on his farm near Chatham, says he did access the program to change over some equipment and found the grant “helpful.” But it’s not enough; the changes are big and annual audits seem to require other improvements. If the assistance program is extended, the portion the province pays needs to be increased, he says.
Tony Facciolo, president of the Ontario Independent Meat Producers, says he was unaware that not all of the money had been spent in the program. He’d like to see it reintroduced with some tweaks, noting small plants weren’t ready to take advantage of the program at the time. He adds that the $25,000 limit was not enough to help larger plants.
Facciolo says he’s aware there’s concern that the organization is too close to the ministry but notes the close working relationship has benefitted the industry.
John Koch, who owns Walnut Hill Farm, a meat processing plant in Gads Hill processing less than 500,000 kilograms of meat a year, says paperwork was one of the reasons why he closed his abattoir at the end of March.
Changing over the operation is creating other headaches. He says he’s having problems getting different officials to agree on what changes need to be made to reach compliance. He estimates these will cost $100,000.
In the past 10 to 12 years he’s owned the business “I’ve spent over $500,000 on the plant,” he says.
Koch says he uses the slaughters at two other plants and has lost a few customers who prefer to stay with a local abattoir.
Provincial documents show that in 2006 the province had 650 standalone operators and 185 abattoirs. In March 2010, the province had granted 399 licenses to standalones and 149 to abattoirs, a drop of nearly 38.6 and 19.5 per cent, respectively.
Mitchell and Facciolo both say those numbers can be misleading. Some abattoirs have obtained federal licensing, says Mitchell; other abattoirs may have remained in business but shifted to standalone production only, says Facciolo. BF