Mixed messages | Inspectors remove meat from farm business despite issuing licence to produce it
A raid and seizure of farm-made meat products from a southwestern Manitoba farm has local food advocates bewildered by the mixed signals coming from government.
No one is more bewildered than Clinton Cavers, the farmer who saw Manitoba Agriculture inspectors swoop in on his farm, seize its award-winning cured meats and issue him a ticket for allegedly selling it without regulatory approval.
“It came out of left field,” said Cavers a few days after the Aug. 28 raid, as he and his family tried to figure out how to go forward with their plans to keep making prosciutto and other raw, cured meat products on their Pilot Mound farm.
“We didn’t feel we were doing anything wrong.”
The Caverses have been producing small amounts of specialty meat products such as prosciutto, which is raw, dried, salted ham relished by foodies, for more than two years. There is hot demand for the products, which fit into both the growing urban “foodie” culture of gourmet cooking and the local food movement, which promotes sourcing as many food products as possible from local farmers.
The Caverses’ product has fared well with foodies.
High-end Winnipeg restaurants have offered it, and the prosciutto won the gold award in the Great Manitoba Food Fight, a promotional contest offered by Manitoba Agriculture.
Hence the Caverses’ surprise when Manitoba Agriculture inspectors suddenly appeared, declared the food to be “unfit” for human consumption and seized it, suggesting it would probably be destroyed.
Inspectors also issued the Caverses a new licence to keep producing the meat, but not the approval to test or sell the meat.
“We have the licence to do it, but we don’t have the right to do it until we have some of the procedures in place,” said Cavers.
The specific procedures the Caverses need to follow and the facilities they will need to achieve health inspector approval are unclear. Provincial regulations are undeveloped, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency rules are designed to be used by factories and large processing plants, local food advocates say.
They say the Caverses are in trouble because one wing of Manitoba Agriculture is supporting the development of on-farm food, while another wing sees it as incompatible with health-focused food processing rules and regulations.
“They were supported by (Manitoba Agriculture) to develop this product,” said University of Manitoba researcher and instructor Colin Anderson, who was present during the raid.
“I think there needs to be much more space around innovation and development for small-scale processing, and presently the one-size-fits-all regulations are inadequate and inappropriate.”
The Caverses knew they were operating in a grey zone because regulations designed for small-scale, on-farm processing did not exist when they began.
However, they have worked with Manitoba Agriculture officials to spell out what facilities, equipment and procedures they need to meet food safety concerns but still be affordable. They have had regular meetings with agriculture department officials and thought things were proceeding in a hopeful direction, Cavers said.
In June, the family agreed to not sell any of the raw meat products, and boxed and labelled the products. The inspectors returned a month later, and everything seemed OK. Then they came back two weeks later with the seizure order.
Cavers said the fine he received claimed he had been selling the meat products without approval, based on “non-physical” evidence. Cavers said he didn’t sell anything after the June meeting at which he was told to not sell the meat.
The dates the alleged offences occurred were in May, 2013, according to Cavers.
Anderson has been visiting the Cavers farm for six years as part of his research on the development of on-farm food processing and rural food development. Each year he takes a group of his students to the Caverses’ part of Manitoba to see how farmers and local rural people are trying to develop a sustainable local economy.
On the day of the raid, Anderson and his students were at a local Hutterite colony when they were called by one of the Cavers children, telling them not to come by that day because of the raid.
However, Anderson thought he and two of his students could help the Caverses by popping by and recording some of the raid with the video camera and mobile phones they were carrying.
Some of that footage is available through a website set up by supporters of the Caverses at www.realmanitobafoodfight.ca
Cavers said he wants the broader issue of establishing regulations suitable for small-scale, on-farm production to be addressed, and understands his situation might help that occur.
However, he’s also hoping the issue de-escalates and his farm can get back on a constructive basis with Manitoba Agriculture so that he can resume selling his products to the public.
There have been promising signs of that happening. The Manitoba Agriculture staff with which he had previously worked came by Sept. 6 and still seemed committed to working with his farm to resolve the complications and grey areas.
“The staff we’ve worked with have always been awesome,” Cavers said.
“It’s a case of one hand (of the government) not knowing what the other hand is doing.”