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Small abattoirs see increase in demand due to food security concerns

Small processors have been able to take up some the slack due to outbreaks at large plants. [Damon MacLean]

Issues of food security have been high on the list of changes and adaptations demanded by the coronavirus pandemic. In particular, the crisis has shone a light on the meat-packing industry, both due to outbreaks of the virus and the resultant shortages of product.

The outbreak caused fears of food shortages and led to hoarding of products such as meats, a situation that’s had odd impact on our economy and food system.

Corporate ownership has seen much of the production shift to a handful of plants owned by two or three companies. Such shifts are common in the food sector and the economy in general, and often fly under the weather … until the current situation arose, that is.

The market dominance of the likes of Cargill is now in the spotlight. We’ve heard how smaller abattoirs  have been bought up, closed down and forced into niche markets, for example. The shortages and public’s concerns about shortages have proven to be something of a boon for local producers.

Paul Martin, the manager of Country Poultry Processing in Floradale, says business there has gone up an estimated 60 per cent. The enormous demand from people in the region searching for other ways to stock up on meat supplies has shown the importance of supporting local independent establishments, he noted.

 Although restaurant purchases have completely dropped, Martin said the retail side of the business has taken off.

“The reason that I would say is people are looking to avoid supermarkets, so they are heading out into the country. Also, people are stocking freezers with meat.”

Regularly, the poultry plant sees approximately 4,000 animals go through the process each week. Now, that number is closer to 16,000 birds.

Martin said that tremendous growth in business from local consumers is positive, but notes small abattoirs are not in a position to sustain such an influx, a situation that applies not just to poultry, but also pork and cattle.

“We have a good supply of available meat in Ontario and Canada. The problem is getting it to the consumer: there are not enough abattoirs. The abattoirs don’t have the capacity to feed the whole country,” he said.

The issues were on display close to home when Breslau’s Conestoga Meat Packers, which processes some 37,000 hogs each week, saw an outbreak of the virus and was forced to close down for a week.

Producer-owned, the cooperative is one of few sizable outlets for pork producers.

Carl Mueller, a local hog farmer, has been in a state of uncertainty since fairly early on in the crisis. The owner of Eldale Swine in Elmira, Mueller noted there is a growing wariness of contagions in the food chain.

Although health officials note there’s been no transmission of the virus through food, some people have reduced the amount of meat they were eating.

Outbreaks continue to be an issue in larger meat-processing plants, especially in the U.S., but there has been some stability in the market. With talk of shortened supply lines and greater food security, small, local producers may continue to benefit in the post-coronavirus landscape.

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