BEYOND THE HEADLINES: Where's the beef?

It was truly much ado about nothing.

Norm Letnick, agriculture minister, rolled into Vernon last week to unveil his much-anticipated response to complaints that provincial meat regulations were crippling North Okanagan farmers and the local economy.

“I heard clearly there is a desire to do more farm-gate,” said Letnick.

However, the issuance of five class E licenses in a pilot project left many at the press conference feeling like their concerns had fallen on deaf ears.

“In a region the size of ours, how will five have an impact?” said Christine Fraser, a Spallumcheen councillor.

Just to give you a sense of what the pilot project means, five licenses translate into about 50 cows a year being butchered (10,000 pounds per farm).

“This is an absolutely disgraceful return for the amount of energy and resources that have been expended in trying to save the local, community scale meat producers, of whom very few are left,” said Andrea Gunner, a Spallumcheen farmer and agricultural economist.

The bottom line is that 295 farmers in the North Okanagan will continue to struggle and have no viable alternative to have their meat processed. It also means there will be pent-up demand from consumers who want to know where their food comes from.

The Ministry of Agriculture insists a two-year pilot program is necessary to prove that farm-based meat processing is safe and public health is not put at risk.

But for those in the know, that argument has more holes than Swiss cheese.

“There’s no valid evidence that community scale agriculture has ever been an issue. The meat regulations undermined a system that worked,” said Buffy Baumbrough, the author of a local food systems plan.

Unlike headlines dominated by meat scares at large factories, there have been no significant cases linking poor health to animals slaughtered on a farm.

In fact, some will make the argument that the local farmer, or the individual they hire, takes great care with slaughtering because they are eating the meat themselves and they are selling it to family, friends and neighbours. Contaminated meat doesn’t go over well at reunions.

Baumbrough also likes to point out that the province permits class E licenses, or uninspected meat sales, in other parts of B.C., so if they aren’t a health risk there, why would they be a threat in the North Okanagan?

It appears that the government’s decisions are more governed by a belief that farm-gate activities will undermine local abattoirs and the significant financial investment they have made in equipment. However, many of the abattoirs are so busy that they can’t handle the needs of the small guy who may just have a few chickens.

Also, the fact that the number of local producers has gone from 1,200 to 300 since the meat processing rules started in 2007 means farmers aren’t utilizing the abattoirs for a variety of reasons.

Eric Foster, Vernon-Monashee MLA, is convinced the two-year pilot program will ultimately lead to more E licenses being handed out. But one has to wonder how many farmers can hang on that long?

I began this column referencing Shakespeare. But for farmers and residents reviewing the government’s actions, they may want to quote Clara Peller’s “Where’s the beef?”



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