Lets talk turkey (Winter 2014)

    Many Nova Scotians were upset to the point of outrage before Thanksgiving when the provincial Turkey Farmers association used their established, and to now largely ignored, powers to deny a well-loved and respected – although unlicensed – abattoir owner in Pictou County the right to slaughter turkeys. 
    Thousands have signed petitions decrying the call, for Gordon Fraser has for nearly four decades provided much needed good and clean service in his Millville shop to satisfied customers for miles around.
    The Pictou County Federation of Agriculture brought three resolutions to the Nova Scotia Federation’s annual meeting in November, all in an effort to match need and reality to operations of Turkey Farmers of Nova Scotia that operates under the auspices of the province’s Natural Products Marketing Act. All were defeated by larger than two to one majorities. 
    The exchange of views leading up to each vote was largely calm and respectful. But fear led the way. “What if someone gets sick, or even dies,” as a result of eating tainted meat from an unlicensed abattoir?” No one gives that question the deserved attention. The response is to run and hide. 
    What’s this got to do with beef or sheep? It’s got the fact that fear and not science or even rational thinking is being used by the establishment in ways that, perhaps not intentionally, put undo pressure on small players and new entrants into agriculture and related enterprises. While it’s turkey today, it could well be sheep and beef tomorrow. 
    It is a question that should be addressed using accepted methods for measuring risk and benefit. The risk to human health and to the economy has to be very small when considering the product of our small abattoirs compared to that coming from a Cargill or Maple Leaf plant. Without question, when considering the small local plant, it would be simple to trace back to a source of contamination and forward to all who might have been exposed, without RFID. 
    The benefit is great for local rural economies.  
    Each province has its own and sometimes widely varying regulations for how meat animals are killed and butchered in licensed facilities. For example, in Nova Scotia there must be a provincial inspector on site when animals are slaughtered. While the cost is borne by the province, the abattoir owner, regardless how small and part-time, must work around the availability of an inspector. In New Brunswick there appears to be no such requirement. The licensed abattoir is simply visited periodically by an inspector to see that things are in order.
    Over my own past four decades I’ve taken chickens, pigs, and cattle to a number of different people and abattoirs for slaughter. Some were licensed, some were not, and whichever they were had no bearing on cleanliness or level of skill. In fact over the years the best, and nearest, bet for beef or hogs, was an unlicensed shop. 
    Poultry is better served, but with only eight across the province there clearly need to be more. My nearest licensed poultry abattoir is two hours drive. A preferred abattoir is closer to three. To adhere to food safety regulations, birds killed one day must be chilled thoroughly before being returned to the customer, generally 24 hours later. That means two trips at best – a matter of eight hours and considerable spent fuel.
    Everyone knows licensed abattoirs that are more than dirty; they are scrimey. I backed up to the loading dock of one, hauling a couple of pigs to be killed, took one look and smell, and drove away. Another licensed shop offering cut-and-wrap services would package and label “Pieces of pork.” A third packaged random thick or thin or wedge-shaped chops in pairs, to the cook’s dismay when thawed and unwrapped. 
    This brings to mind the brand new meat cutting shop that was part of the Nova Scotia Agricultural College’s animal science building completed in 1987, and very possibly never used. By then our grocery chains, for years continually on the lookout for trained cutters, were importing boxed beef. Breaking carcasses down, be it chicken, beef, sheep, or pork was no longer a retail responsibility, with the exception of small local players.
    A crying need for trained meat cutters in local shops and abattoirs, licensed or not, is not being addressed. 
    There are good and well-run shops; some licensed, some not. Gordon Fraser’s is an example of a good, unlicensed abattoir. At this stage of the game why would he go into debt to put up a second building to kill birds, and look after any other upgrades just to meet licensing criteria that in the end mean very little?
    From talking to meat inspectors in the past I’ve gathered the province is hesitant to come down too hard on their licensed abattoirs. If they are too strict, existing operators might quit and still fewer new people will make an effort to come on board.
    What is a reasonable course of action? We might take a leaf from the book of traffic control that says the best way to establish a speed limit is to measure the speed of the average driver. We should gather together those who slaughter for a living and compare notes, costs, and cautions. From this we could draw up a blueprint for reasonable and acceptable and affordable standards of operation.
    All or a large majority would have to sign on. The system could be self-monitored, with a couple of extension specialists hired to be on the road visiting, advising, and sharing new information among abattoir owners and with interested parties back at Perennia and Dalhousie. 
    There. That’s settled. Merry Christmas and best wishes to all. DvL