by SUSAN MANN
The Thunder Bay poultry market is missing a piece of the puzzle but community leaders are hoping to change that by establishing an abattoir for bird processing.
Raili Roy, community outreach coordinator with Lakehead University’s Food Security Research Network, is studying the need for a provincially inspected poultry abattoir in Thunder Bay. The consumer demand portion of the study is completed and the next step is to develop a business plan.
A group of community members are drafting the business plan. One big problem is money. There has to be enough demand to support the abattoir. For there to be enough demand, the price has to be set low enough and for the abattoir to run it must charge farmers enough on each chicken to make it worth its while.
The price being considered for farmers is about $4 to process to each chicken, she says. The abattoir would also process turkeys and other poultry but fees for them would be higher.
The abattoir would be a cooperative with a board of directors from members of the community. They’d have to commit to bringing a certain number of chickens or turkeys every year to ensure the business stays viable. They’d also provide start-up costs.
The abattoir would likely be set up in a facility owned by Ken Milenko, who has been working on developing it for the past eight years. Roy says Milenko asked the community for help in setting it up. The community group would complete the necessary renovations and get the certification.
The facility would be opened this fall or next spring. It would be opened for three or four days a year.
Currently, there’s just one poultry abattoir between Thunder Bay and Sudbury located in Dryden. Farmers could take poultry there to be slaughtered but it’s an eight-hour drive round trip making that impractical.
Peggy Brekveld, Ontario Federation of Agriculture northern director, says a lack of poultry processing facilities in the Thunder Bay region means farmers who want to serve the local market can’t do it legally because it’s illegal to have birds processed in another province and brought back for sale to consumers.
Meat from animals processed in federally registered abattoirs can be sold in other provinces and countries while those processed in provincially registered abattoirs can only be sold within the province. The government prosecutes violators. In December 2011 a man pled guilty and was fined $1,500 in a Manitoba court for selling turkey and chicken from a Manitoba Hutterite Colony to two Kenora, Ontario residents.
There’s a demand for local poultry and farmers are willing to fill the market. “There’s actually a thriving market in Thunder Bay and poultry is one area where that market can grow,” Brekveld says.
Roy says five per cent of Thunder Bay’s population regularly shops locally and is interested in buying poultry regularly from local suppliers. Currently shoppers get their poultry from grocery stores. It “comes mostly from southern Ontario” and some from federally inspected plants in Manitoba.
As for farmers to fill the market, Roy says there’s a pretty bustling black market in poultry in the Thunder Bay area. “People are selling uninspected birds to people that they know, hush-hush.”
On the black market farmers are charging $3.50 to $3.99 a pound for their chickens, she says.
In many ways Thunder Bay is more connected to Manitoba and some parts of the United States than southern Ontario simply because it’s closer to those areas. Farmers routinely go to Steinbach, Manitoba, Wisconsin or Minnesota for machinery, parts and other supplies rather than making the 18-hour trek to southern Ontario.
Brekveld says there should be just one national abattoir system rather than the federal and provincial systems in place now. That would enable farmers to work between provinces.
Jason Reid, Ontario Cattlemen’s Association advisory councilor, agrees. He says having one abattoir system would better serve farmers wanting to fill local markets. Currently large grocery store chains have policies to only buy meat from federally registered plants. But food safety and meat quality regulations are the same in federal and provincial plants.
Reid says he doesn’t know where the closest federal plant is to Thunder Bay. At one time Thunder Bay Meat Processing Limited, which handles red meats, explored the possibility of switching to a federal registration but “there’s just so many stonewalls you run up against to be able to do that.”
There’s serious demand for Thunder Bay’s red meat abattoir. Roy says she bought pigs in May last year and booked the abattoir dates as soon as she got them. The earliest dates they could give her were in mid-November.
For farmers the situation means they could lose customers because they’re not willing to wait for the meat. It could also mean increased feeding costs. “Pigs consume a lot of grain during their last couple weeks of their lives,” she says. BF