Proposed abattoir to be federal facility

By this time next year, area residents may well be buying beef and other meat that was grown, slaughtered, and processed right here in Rainy River District.
Furthermore, people right across the country—and beyond—will be doing likewise.
That is the goal of the Rainy River Regional Abattoir Corporation, a not-for-profit consortium of local meat producers and the Rainy River Future Development Corp., which has begun the long process of building a federal-standard abattoir in the west end of the district.
These developments gained momentum after a meeting at the Emo Inn last Wednesday (March 24) between the RRFDC, two district reeves, and contractor Tito Guglielmi of Mallot Creek Associates.
“This is a huge step,” said Geoff Gillon, economic development officer for the RRFDC, which is spearheading this initiative he feels could go a long way toward mitigating the fallout from the “mad cow” crisis that’s virtually crippled the Canadian cattle industry since last May.
“We’re hoping in the not-too-distant future it will all come together,” Gillon added.
In fact, the idea of slaughtering and processing locally-produced meat pre-dates the events of last May by some time. Gillon said plans have been in the works for six years to provide a readily-accessible outlet for local production to supply the district market.
Previously, district livestock was sent away to be slaughtered and processed, and then became part of the national pool. Meat that appears on the grocery shelves here could be from anywhere in the country.
But that could all change with the capability to slaughter, age, and package it right here where it was raised.
Originally, the plan called for building a facility to less-stringent provincial standards and to market the product here. But fallout from the closing of international markets to Canadian beef, coupled with the demand for more exotic meats such as elk and bison overseas, convinced the RRFDC to raise its sights and aim for federal certification.
Gillon said the consortium of eight local producers and investors already had raised about $240,000, which was deemed sufficient to justify applying for additional funding from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp. (which matched that amount).
With nearly half-a-million dollars in hand, planning began for a provincial facility to be built on property straddling the Chapple-Morley boundary. But the discovery of a single cow in Alberta infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) brought everything to a screeching halt.
“Since BSE, we’ve decided to go federal, which allows us to export into the United States and everywhere else except the European Union,” noted Gillon.
There are additional benefits to seeking federal certification, added Gillon. Because of the number of local producers (and investors) who raise elk and bison, a federal facility also will enable those products to be processed and exported.
“In order to handle the other products in the district, we need a federal abattoir,” Gillon explained.
As well, seeking federal certification will make the abattoir project eligible for FedNor funding. Gillon said he’s hoping to persuade Ottawa to match the money already in place, thereby doubling the available cash.
“So we’ve hired Tito [Guglielmi] to assist us in putting together a design-build and have it accepted by the CFIA [Canadian Food Inspection Agency],” he added.
Guglielmi, located in Fergus, Ont., is a professional engineer with 25 years experience in the food industry. He also is a consultant to the industry, and designs processing plants as well as abattoirs.
Most of his plants are built and operated to federal standards, and he says designing a facility that can handle different types of animals is not difficult.
“Elk, beef, and buffalo are quite similar,” Guglielmi remarked. “They’re all ruminants. Hogs are slightly different, but not a problem.”
The plan calls for a slaughtering plant that will employ three full-time workers and an adjoining packing facility that could employ up to seven more. The operation would be able to process up to 30 animals per day.
Gillon noted there is very little structural difference between federal and provincial facilities. Rather, most of the difference is administrative.
Federal standards, for instance, call for more inspections throughout the processing and facilities for inspectors to monitor operations. There are stricter standards regarding the treatment of offal and non-consumable waste disposal, as well as higher demands for water.
Guglielmi noted over the last six months, large processors have been buying out and, in some cases, shutting down small independent operators—thereby concentrating the industry in fewer hands.
The result, he said, is huge profits for the big processors at the expense of producers, who are getting so little for animals, it often doesn’t pay to have them shipped to large facilities in Alberta and southern Ontario.
Guglielmi argued such a policy not only is shortsighted but ultimately self-defeating.
“What they’re doing is taking advantage of the situation at the expense of the producers, but what they don’t realize is the producers provide the raw materials for their plants,” he explained.
“If they keep doing what they’re doing, they won’t have any raw material,” he stressed.
Emo Reeve Russ Fortier, who attended last Wednesday’s meeting, agreed.
“I think this is something we’re seeing with BSE,” he said. “We believe the big packers today are fleecing everybody and this [abattoir] should be able to operate with some cost-savings for local people.”
Producers still will have to pay costs of slaughtering and processing, Reeve Fortier stressed, but by providing the ability to do so closer to home, it is hoped district farmers will be able to survive until the borders re-open to Canadian beef.
Guglielmi said he’s noticed a recent trend toward small facilities once again popping up in southern Ontario, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. In fact, he’s currently building a small plant in Prince Edward Island.
But there still are a number of obstacles remaining before the abattoir can be up and running. First, a plan must be submitted and approved through CFIA—a process Guglielmi said could take up to four months.
Gillon said construction can’t begin until formal approval has been given.
After that, it will be about six months from the time the first shovel goes into the ground until the first animal steps through the gate.
Furthermore, additional financing may be necessary to meet all the stringent requirements of federal standards. And finally, there is no guarantee the borders will be open to Canadian exports by the time the abattoir is up and running.
“Before this week, we had a lot of unanswered questions,” said Gillon. “Now we have more unanswered questions, but we have the professional assistance to get those answers.”
Gillon added if the abattoir project is successful, it may be possible to expand the operation to include a processing industry down the road. This “vertical integration” will create even more jobs, he noted.
Ultimately, the project may well depend on district consumers to support their neighbours by purchasing meat labelled “Product of Rainy River District” until the international scene stabilizes and exports can resume.
And that, said Reeve Fortier, is what all concerned are counting on.
“We’re hanging our hats on that,” he conceded. “And why shouldn’t they [buy locally]? Anybody who buys local beef knows it’s the best beef in the country.”