‘A crisis of capacity’: Ontario faces slaughterhouse scarcity during COVID-19

Abattoirs have been shutting down across the province — now the pandemic is putting pressure on an already strained system
By Marsha McLeod - Published on Jan 06, 2021
Tim Dowling is a grass-fed-beef farmer on Howe Island, east of Kingston on the St. Lawrence River. (Andrée Thorpe Photography)

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Last fall, Tim Dowling booked enough slots at an abattoir for about two of his cattle to be slaughtered and processed each month until December 2021. If he were to book this week, however, the earliest slot he could get from that facility ­would be about a year away.

The grass-fed-beef farmer on Howe Island, east of Kingston on the St. Lawrence River, isn’t a stranger to such waits. It took about seven months before he recently learned that he was at the front of a wait-list at one of those two small-scale slaughterhouses — ahead of about 150 others. “We're direct-selling meat to folks in our community,” he says. “And if we don’t have bookings, we’re in big trouble.”

Doublejay, the farm Dowling runs with his mom, Dianne, could theoretically send its animals to a large abattoir, such as the Cargill meat-processing plant in Guelph, he says, but that’s the last the farm would see of the animal, as the meat goes into that company’s distribution system — and, besides, a COVID-19 outbreak at that plant led to a nearly two-week shutdown last month. Custom slaughter allows farms to send their beef to an abattoir and have it cut to their specifications; they can then sell the meat through their own websites or at farmers’ markets.

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The number of provincially licensed abattoirs in Ontario has dwindled from 229 in 1999 to 115 as of October 2020, according to Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. COVID-19 is accelerating consumers’ interest in locally produced food, but limited abattoir capacity means that family farms can’t respond to demand, Dowling says: “As smaller farms that sell our own meat, the abattoir streams determine our capacity as a whole.”

The National Farmers Union-Ontario, which advocates for small and family farmers, has heard a lot from its members about booking issues at abattoirs, says Dowling, the union’s national livestock committee chair. “It's basically a crisis of capacity,” he says. In August, the union sent a survey to all abattoirs in the province about the major issues for their businesses. They heard back from about a third.  

More than half of respondents said that they’d like to expand their capacity but that the cost was too high. The remainder were older owners more interested in retirement, Dowling told Farmers Forum. The majority also said that they have difficulty finding qualified staff. About three-quarters reported having to book at least six months ahead. (Dowling says it used to be around three months in his area.) He also anticipates that booking times will have increased since the survey was taken.

Tom Henderson, a longtime abattoir owner, has himself faced difficulties finding staff. He’s owned Tom Henderson's Meats and Abattoir Inc., in Chesterville, about 50 kilometres west of Cornwall, for just shy of 40 years. “I spent quite a bit of money looking for people in papers and on my phone, through Facebook, through Kijiji, and I never got a call — never got one call,” Henderson says, referring to his recruiting efforts during the pandemic. He believes the availability of emergency government funds has made it harder to attract applicants. 

Only four abattoirs remain in the region, he says: “They're getting slim to none, now.” In the last two or three years, he’s seen a boom in business; he’s now booking well into spring and fall 2021. “For us, there's days that we could use extra help — probably every day — but we work at it as best we can, and we get the job done,” he adds. 

In Yarker, a small town north of Kingston, Brian Quinn is looking for a buyer for his abattoir, Quinn’s Meats Ltd., which he’s run for 46 years. As he told the Kingstonist, he’s looking to retire. “The trade hasn’t passed down from generation to generation,” Quinn said. “Pretty much everybody here is in their 50s. There are no young kids stepping up.”

In November 2020, the Ontario government announced a $4 million program meant to help meat processors upgrade their equipment, up to $150,000 per project. Ernie Hardeman, Ontario's Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, said in a news release that the funding would help improve plants’ “productivity and capacity” amid COVID-19. Dowling called the announcement a good first step but said that more funding is needed.

In Canada, meat processing is extremely centralized, as Food Secure Canada, a national non-profit advancing food security, pointed out in a May 2020 report. Currently, three meat-processing plants produce 95 per cent of Canada’s beef. Building resilient food systems, the non-profit argues, will therefore require investment in small- and medium-sized abattoirs. 

Canada’s meat processing sector has seen several outbreaks during the pandemic: Cargill facilities in Calgary and near High River, Alberta, were forced to close temporarily; Cargill’s Guelph plant resumed operations on December 29 after shutting down for almost two weeks last month. A December 2020 report on food pricing led by Dalhousie University's Agri-Food Analytics Lab predicts Canadian meat prices will rise by between 4.5 and 6.5 per cent in 2021, in part because of COVID-19-related factors such as shutdowns, a “large temporary backlog” of animals to be slaughtered, and reduced capacity at processing plants due to distancing measures.

For Dowling, one of the main differences between dealing with a small abattoir and a large, multinational company is the price point: after slaughter, his beef might be worth around a dollar per pound to the latter, versus five to six dollars when it’s processed locally to be sold locally. “Farmers are not asking for prices when they send animals to large abattoirs; they're taking prices,” he says, adding that, for the animals, the six-hour drive to Cargill’s plant in Guelph is “basically a nightmare for your last day.”

a man, woman, and child in a car
Sarah and Chad Hunt, with their son, Wesley. (Courtesy of Sarah Hunt)

In eastern Ontario, some farmers have been stepping in to help solve abattoir-capacity issues. “The problem we were running into was processing, and not just available abattoirs — but they can only process so much," says Sarah Hunt, who, along with her husband, Chad, is a partner of Corad Farms, their family’s beef farm in Pakenham, about 60 kilometres west of Ottawa. 

The couple began looking into building their own abattoir, Hunt says, but the cost was prohibitive — between $3 million and $4 million. Buying an existing one made better financial sense, and, in February 2020, they took over the Farmersville Community Abattoir Ltd., in Athens, whose previous operators had started looking toward retirement. 

Business at Farmersville is brisk. “What we didn’t foresee was the demand to spike like it has, with at one point between 400 and 500 animals on the waiting list; we were booking well into 2021.” Hunt says. “With that comes a lot of frustrations from local producers because they’re trying to book animals, and there are no spots anymore.”

For Hunt, the point is to support local producers as much as possible, whether you’re buying candles or parsnips or beef: “That’s what is stimulating our local economy.”

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