Thirteen southwestern Manitoba families who banded together to deliver their farm produce to Winnipeg customers have found themselves on the wrong side of provincial food safety regulations.
The Harvest Moon Local Food Initiative, which has seen its direct-to-customer sales grow to about $120,000 annually since 2008, has been told to stop delivering ungraded eggs or uninspected chickens to customers.
Over the past three years, the initiative has been taking customer orders through a web-based ordering system and delivering farm-raised products to delivery points in Winnipeg and other sites in rural Manitoba.
By joining forces, the producers were able to combine orders and share transportation for their farm-raised beef, chicken, pork, lamb, eggs, produce and jams and jellies to customers 140 km away, said Troy Stozek, who operates a mixed farm near Cartwright with his partner Michelle Schram.
They recently learned from provincial inspectors that they can no longer market ungraded eggs or chicken that hasn’t been processed at a provincially inspected plant over the Internet, he said.
“It’s really a bit of a grey area for the government from an inspector’s point of view, in that eggs and uninspected chicken are allowed to be sold at the farm gate only,” Stozek said.
They also don’t fit the definition of a farmers’ market either, so they can’t legally sell jams or jellies without nutrition labelling.
Schram said she initially understood making jam at a provincially inspected kitchen would comply with food safety regulations.
“I was fully committed to doing that, and then our most recent update is that we have to send a recipe for each product to the Food Development Centre in Portage la Prairie,” she said, adding that the initial cost is about $150 per recipe. Schram said some financial support may be available through Growing Forward 2 programs, but she needs to pencil out whether the volumes she wants to sell match the extra costs and time.
Harvest Moon’s problems are further complicated by the fact they pool deliveries, taking turns making the trip in refrigerated trucks, said Greg Wood, who owns a small mixed farm and is also owner of Cypress Meats and More at Cypress River.
The rules don’t accommodate pooling of direct-marketed farm production. But he said it doesn’t make sense for each of them to be separately driving their products to customers either from a time management or environmental perspective, he said.
“It’s all about the distance,” said Wood, adding that if they were all 20 minutes from the city there’d be no problem.
Stozek said food safety is paramount to their group, but none of these latest restrictions have arisen because of a problem with their food products.
“In our minds it’s a perfect system in terms of accountability,” he said. “Customers know exactly where and who they bought everything from and put that trust in the farmer accordingly.”
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Brad and Leanne Anderson, who raise 999 chickens on their small farm south of Cypress River and have been marketing through HMLFI, say their only option now is to start taking their birds to a provincially inspected plant in Niverville again.
They’ve done so before, but it was a two-hour drive, “stressful for both us and the birds,” he said. They’ve been much happier working through a facility in their area that is inspected by provincial health officials, but does not provide inspection on the birds it processes.
Customers can also come and get their chickens directly from their farm, but only a fraction have ever done so, he added.
“Roughly 100 of them get picked up, the rest of them we deliver,” said Anderson.
Anderson said the bottom line is the way the rules are being interpreted makes it prohibitive for small-flock producers to make a living. “I’m not sure that this actually serves the purpose it’s trying to serve, which is making food safer,” he said.
Wood said about 70 per cent of their farm-raised eggs from their own small flock is sold via the truck deliveries. Eggs were one of HMLFI’s most popular products, but now they must either find somewhere nearby to get eggs graded or stop selling them altogether, he said. They haven’t begun to explore all their options but hauling small volumes of eggs long distances for grading would erase any profit, Wood said.
The group has written to Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development Minister Ron Kostyshyn asking for rule changes that recognize their web-based truck marketing system, Stozek said, adding that HMLFI’s system was created after the rules were laid down for direct marketing.
“A lot of new and aspiring farmers are looking to get into this type of business of diversification and direct marketing and it just seems there’s a real opportunity for the province to encourage this kind of local economic development.”
Stozek added that their hope is that this latest issue related to local food marketing starts to bring about positive changes.
“We’re just going to try and encourage increased dialogue,” he said. “And I think that’s already been started in the past few months.”
Their group will be able to make their case again this spring when public consultations on food safety regulation begin.
Although the Manitoba government implemented a new food safety act five years ago, it has not yet been proclaimed and will begin hosting public consultations on regulations this spring.
That will allow public input into draft regulations that focus on how food is processed in Manitoba, said Dr. Glen Duizer, who works in the Food Safety Knowledge Centre of MAFRD.
There will be both web-based consultations and public meetings to allow wide opportunity for people to have input, Duizer said, adding that the dates and locations of public meetings are expected to be announced shortly.
“This is going to have a fair bit of interest around it so I would expect, obviously, there will be several times and opportunities for people to have these meetings,” he said.