MAFRI’s two-faced policy towards local food

Small farm owners Pam and Clint Cavers had the surprise of their lives last week when Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI) staff showed up to “seize and destroy” their stock of locally produced and cured prosciutto (pork). Ironically, just months ago, MAFRI had presented the Cavers with a $10,000 prize, naming their prosciutto the “Best New Food Product” in the Great Manitoba Food Fight competition.

This incident highlights the need to scrutinize how government policy may be preventing family farmers from innovating and diversifying and from meeting the growing consumer demand for local food. Pam Cavers neatly summed up their experience with MAFRI. “With one hand they giveth and the other they taketh away.”

Imagine this Kodak moment. MAFRI Minister Ron Kostyshyn savouring Clint and Pam’s delicious prosciutto in front of a captive audience, celebrating local food and farmers at the Great Manitoba Food Fight.

Fast-forward four months. The scene changes from that Kodak moment to a nightmare for the Cavers. Two MAFRI inspectors arrive to deliver a $1,400 fine and to “seize and destroy” $8,000 of a product they had poured their hearts into developing.

The MAFRI officers were aggressive and intimidating — so much so that the RCMP officer attending at MAFRI’s request, himself a customer of the Cavers, warned the inspectors that they can do their job without being rude, to respect that the Cavers’ livelihood was at stake and to “take it down a notch.”

It’s not hard to see why Manitoba family farmers feel that policy towards local food is two faced. Because unfortunately, as dramatic as the raid at the Cavers’ farm is, this is not an isolated incident. It is indicative of a much deeper-seeded problem — the marriage of government to industrial agriculture to the detriment of family farmers.

In my doctoral research, I interviewed farm families who sell their meat directly to consumers in Western Canada and the U.S. Most farmers wanted to expand and innovate but were frustrated and stymied by the many barriers they face.

Most often it was the lack of affordable and accessible processing facilities. Some farmers I interviewed had considered establishing their own facilities. But the regulations are geared towards large industrial plants and the costs of compliance are too great to make business sense for smaller farmers and processors.

Meanwhile, many said that the existing regulations were open to interpretation, which they noted is a huge business risk.

Everyone agrees that food safety regulations are important. However, smaller farmers and processors want regulations to take into account the relative risk of different-size operations — “scale-appropriate regulations.”

Risk management is a science and is based on the formula: Risk = (Probability of Occurrence) multiplied by the (Impact of Occurrence). The most obvious reason for different regulations for smaller producers and processors is that the potential impact of an outbreak from the mega processing plants is much greater. You have to look no further than what happened with the Maple Leaf listeria outbreak in 2008 and XL Beef E. coli outbreak in 2012 for evidence.

In the XL beef incident, at least 18 fell ill, thousands of pounds of meat were wasted and it was months before the company could determine where the tainted food had been sold. The incident cost between $16 million and $27 million and damaged consumer confidence in Canadian meat.

Is the Manitoba government serious about local food? Many farmers say that, while front line MAFRI staff people are helpful, they are woefully underfunded.

When it comes to photo ops and window dressing, the government program money is there. Just look at the MAFRI Buy Manitoba program. What was framed as opportunity to help farmers develop local markets essentially ended up being a tool for large grocery chains to label products that were manufactured in Manitoba.

Sure, some legitimately Manitoba companies were supported. But, we also see Coca-Cola labelled with a Buy Manitoba logo. Once again, a program was co-opted by big industry, yet family farmers, like the Cavers, receive almost no benefit.

Then there is Open Farm Day, another MAFRI program. Farmers host consumers to promote their farm products and educate the public about farming. Again, a great photo op for the minister. However, Dwayne Logan, a former farmer participant in Open Farm Day, aptly criticized that the program gives the public an unrealistic view of agriculture as idyllic.

Thus, MAFRI holds small family farms up as the face of agriculture. Yet it provides minimal financial support and even undermines small farmers with one-size-fits-all regulation.

There is no doubt that the public is looking to tap into local food from Manitoba farmers. Yet, incidents like the one at Harborside Farms effectively drive farmers underground, making it difficult for consumers to find authentic local food.

If we are serious about enabling Manitoba farmers of all sizes and types to meet the growing consumer interest in local food, we must demand that government works with farmers to create more appropriate programs and regulations.

We can look elsewhere to see that there are ample, but unrealized opportunities for our government to nurture the local food economy. For example, three years ago, farmers and consumers united to successfully lobby for scale-appropriate regulation that is now enabling local food in the state of Oregon.

It is clear that we need to get beyond the photo ops here in Manitoba and that the government must listen to what farmers need, and what the public wants in order to provide good, clean, healthy food to Manitobans.

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