The recent closures of meat-packing plants in Alberta, Quebec and several American states due to the COVID-19 pandemic are shedding light on the tremendous expense of this style of massive meat-processing operation.
The expense borne by the workers at the plants is the greatest of all, their health threatened so severely, even causing death to two Cargill workers in Alberta. However, the expense doesn’t stop there, as consumers are expected to see meat prices jump, farmers have seen the prices paid for their animals drop by more than 30 per cent and taxpayers will ultimately pay the price to help bail out this sector.
Several decades ago when the move to close smaller slaughterhouses in favour of building huge single-entity plants was happening, the rationale was that there were going to be tremendous efficiencies in doing this.
National Farmers Union studies showed that the promised efficiencies of consumers seeing cheaper meat and farmers making a decent living simply did not materialize. The spread between what farmers are paid for their animals and what consumers pay for meat has grown. The working conditions at the plants with thousands of animals being slaughtered each day are stressful at the best of times and downright dangerous now.
Farmers suddenly have nowhere to sell their animals and consumers are starting to see less meat on the shelves.
Now is the time to look at how we can build a meat-processing system that will not cause these massive problems. A move to build smaller, safer slaughter plants in each province would help to disperse the threats to food security. We could assure meat supply from local farms to meet local demands. If one plant was forced to close it would not disrupt the food chain across the entire country.
Providing safe, secure food from local farms to local consumers is entirely possible without putting meat-packing workers at risk.
Surely we’ve learned that bigger is not always better.