CCA calls for optimizing meat-packing system

Processing study ending soon, producer group calls for comprehensive action

Smaller packing operations struggle to compete in part because of the heavy regulatory burden, MPs heard recently.

It’s time to create an environment to support an “optimal Canadian packing system,” the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association has told MPs.

The group was speaking to the federal committee on agriculture which will soon be wrapping up its study into Canada’s meat-processing capacity during a February 23 meeting.

Beginning in Nov. 2020, MPs have heard from more than 50 witnesses on the issue. During a Feb. 23 meeting, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association testified.

In an accompanying brief, seven recommendations on how to attain that goal were provided, which included:

  • Establishing a red meat industry export development fund;
  • Supporting North American integration through harmonizing Canadian and American shipping requirements for beef to South Korea;
  • Extending the set-aside program availability into 2021-22;
  • Updating Canada’s specified risk material (SRM) removal requirements;
  • Implementing the recommendations of the labour workforce action plan;
  • Supporting automation in processing plants; and
  • Placing vaccination priority on agri-food processing workers.

The lobby group made clear to MPs that about 77 to 79 per cent of Canada’s total beef processing has taken place in Western Canada, averaging 56,249 head per week with an 86 per cent utilization rate over the last five years.

COVID-19 had a major dampening effect: last spring, “temporary slowdowns effectively halted just over two-thirds (70 per cent) of Canadian beef-processing capacity over a two-week period and resulted in the first half of 2020’s cattle slaughter being down 11 per cent compared to the same period in 2019.”

A since-processed 130,000 head backlog out west ensued, creating millions in feedlot losses.

The CCA contends Eastern Canada’s federally inspected packing capacity flirted with full capacity even prior to the pandemic. Figures provided show utilization rates at eastern packing facilities being above 90 per cent since 2017, and rising each year.

In 2020, weekly slaughter capacity was 12,550 and the use of it was 100 per cent. The year prior, a 13,250 capacity was used, at 98 per cent.

“This resulted in longer feeding periods, increased costs and lower prices for producers,” read the submission. “This capacity shortage has been particularly acute during the fall and winter months where producers are experiencing delivery and processing delays and a negative price spread to other regions.”

The submission notes that while Ontario’s packing capacity was “keeping pace” during the pandemic, a December 2020 closure at Cargill’s Guelph, Ont. facility resulted in an estimated backlog of 10,000 to 15,000 head of cattle during the two-week period.

The set-aside program put in place by the federal government during the pandemic helped bring “stability to the market” but a backlog of 10,000 to 15,000 head of cattle remains, according to the CCA.

Across Canada in 2020, Canadian federally inspected slaughter capacity averaged 57,681 head per week with a utilization rate of 89 per cent.

But packing capacity taking place in Canada is becoming more and more concentrated in large facilities. The CCA say those big packers are highly efficient competitors that proved capable of enduring the pandemic.

Small- and medium-size packers in the past 10 years have had difficulty competing, and the CCA contends that’s because of efficiencies of scale and regulatory burden.

“Creating the right conditions for small, medium and large packers is essential to a resilient Canadian beef sector,” it says. “Additionally, the integration and thinning of the U.S. border for live cattle and meat trade will further build resiliency within the Canadian beef supply chain.”

The brief from the CCA says its recommendations would strengthen processing capacity in Canada.

About the author

Reporter

D.C. Fraser

D.C. Fraser is Glacier FarmMedia’s Ottawa-based reporter. Growing up mostly in Alberta, Fraser also lived in Saskatchewan for ten years where he covered politics, including a stint teaching at the University of Regina’s School of Journalism. He is an avid fan of the outdoors and a pretty good beer league hockey player. His passion for agriculture and agri-food policy comes naturally: Six consecutive generations of his family have worked in the industry.

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