True North Foods in Carman might be days away from federal certification in the U.S.
Owner and operator, Calvin Vaags, says they are expecting their USDA certification for beef to be finalized any day now.
The milestone would open up the American market for the facility, which is currently the only CFIA certified slaughter plant in Manitoba and therefore the only slaughter plant already eligible to export beef.
“It’s really a huge step forward for us because, I guess, the obvious thing is that it opens up the entire U.S. market to beef coming out of True North Foods, so that in itself is just huge because the market is 10 times the size of Canada,” Vaags said. “That’s the one thing, but the less obvious thing and the part of the market that we will probably gain access to first, is more of our own domestic market. There’s lots of companies within Canada, larger manufacturing-type companies, that demand to have a USDA certification before they will even buy Canadian product.”
The plant already sends meat across Canada, although Vaags says the bulk of his business still lies in Manitoba. The plant sources meat to businesses and butchers in the province, as well as Vaag’s own retail location, Carver’s Knife.
Business has been good recently for the plant. True North Foods has ramped up production from 100 animals a week to about 200, thanks to an influx of business deals, Vaags said. He expects those numbers to climb up to 400 animals a week by this fall, driven largely by a jump in cull cow kills.
Brian Lemon, Manitoba Beef Producers general manager, was optimistic about the pending USDA certification, although he said he expects it to make little overall impact in the beef sector.
The plant sources most animals directly from farmers, but Lemon pointed out that the plant is small, compared to similar facilities in other provinces, and that most of Manitoba’s beef sector is driven by the export of live cattle or long-distance transport to larger facilities.
At the same time, he said, as the only federally certified facility already in Manitoba, any move that builds the business is good news for the beef sector.
“It gives our producers another option. It gives our producers another market and it adds competition into the marketplace, so those are good things,” he said. “He’s still a small guy and he’s probably going to be looking at some very specific markets that he’s going to try and take advantage of, and I would hope that those would be high-value markets and I would hope that value would then trickle down to our producers.”
Manitoba’s cattle are often discounted specifically because of the distance they have to travel, he also pointed out.
Looking to Europe
The U.S. is not the only foreign market that Vaags is eyeing. The company is in talks with buyers from Holland, and Vaags says he hopes to have EU certification in hand by October.
Canadian beef producers have been largely unable to take advantage of quotas promised by CETA, Canada’s free trade deal with the EU. The industry has been fighting regulatory issues, including Europe’s hormone-free requirement and the use of popular carcass washes, which are not approved in the EU.
But Vaags says EU requirements will be less hassle for his small plant.
“It is a larger issue for the larger plants because they have established systems in place,” he said. “(It’s) difficult for them to change their system to meet requirement for what, for them, is going to be a much smaller market.”
His facility does use peroxyacetic acid, one of the washes under debate between the EU and Canada. Europe has yet to approve both that and citric acid, something AAFC assistant deputy minister of markets and industry services, Fred Gorrell, said might take five years when he addressed the Manitoba Beef Producers during its annual meeting this year.
Lactic acid has got the seal of approval, although Vaags says that is more expensive.
“It’s nothing for us to put a dual system in and make it happen,” Vaags said.
Lemon agrees. He predicts that smaller processors, like Vaags, may actually have an advantage over large plants and may be first in line to take advantage of CETA.
“The carcass washes are an important part of the food safety protocols that those big plants have put in place,” Lemon said. “I think, as an industry, we’re working to try and get those protocols and those washes, get them approved by the EU, but that’s a long process.”
EU certification would bring another expected production boost at True North Foods. The plant can handle up to 700 animals a week, Vaags said, although they would have to add to their workforce. It would take little added infrastructure to meet those targets, he said.
The plant could ideally handle 1,000 animals a week, although Vaags says they would have to add coolers to meet that level of production.