Alberta might allow uninspected meat sales

The idea of permitting sales directly to consumers is part of a broad review of inspection regulations

The Alberta government may change regulations that could allow farms to sell uninspected meat directly to consumers, a move that critics say could cause food safety issues.

A survey on the Alberta government’s website said a proposed change to legislation intends to allow for the sale of uninspected sub-primal cuts directly to the consumer from the farmgate, though it would have to meet a number of conditions.

For instance, producers selling uninspected meat would need a licence, would not be allowed to sell it for retail or foodservice, would need to meet traceability requirements and declare on the package that the meat was uninspected and would not be for resale, according to the survey.

As well, the changes would mean farmers wouldn’t be allowed to further process the meat, stopping them from grinding, curing or cooking it for direct sales. It’s currently illegal in Alberta to sell uninspected meat.

Even with the potential requirements, however, some argue the changes put consumers at risk.

Former NDP agriculture minister Oneil Carlier said the former government had been advised from department staff that uninspected sales could cause food safety issues, potentially negatively impacting the industry.

Carlier said he was also told that farmers can already sell their products directly to consumers, but they have to meet the regulatory and inspection process.

“At the time that I recall, the experts within the department thought these processes were working,” he said.

“Having that change won’t increase safety and won’t increase profitability for farms. I don’t think, at that time, unless something has changed, that this would increase opportunity for farmers because they already have that opportunity.”

The province said in an email that food safety remains a top priority, adding it wants Albertans to share their thoughts on ways legislation can be improved.

There are some farmers in support of a potential change, particularly ones that operate on a small scale.

Takota Coen, who runs a small farm with a focus on direct-to-consumer sales, said the potential changes offer a number of benefits.

It would give producers more financial sustainability, he said, because they would be spending less on butchers.

As well, he said, animals killed on farms are less stressed. Animals that are euthanized in less stressful environments have better meat quality, he said, adding he believes consumers should have a choice in where their animals are harvested.

“If we are going to consume meat, we should do it in a way that is respectful and humane,” Coen said. “There is no way to make it zero stress unless the animal is harvested on the farm, in an environment they are familiar with.”

The province, the federal government and farm organizations have long said current practices meet humane and safety standards, though there has been the odd case alleging inhumane treatment.

Rich Smith, executive director of Alberta Beef Producers, said the organization needs to look into the issue further before it can take a position, but he indicated there is some uncertainty.

“Food safety is a very primary concern of our industry and we wouldn’t want to see any system that compromises it,” Smith said. “I’m sure the vast majority of people selling meat from the farmgate would be responsible and there wouldn’t be issues, but it’s one we’re less certain about.”

British Columbia allows uninspected meat to be sold, but only in certain districts of the province and where a rural slaughter establishment is in place. The meat can’t be for resale and it must be labelled as non-government inspected.

Carlier said if there are issues of not enough abattoirs or inspectors, it’s something the province could address.

Alberta is also looking into whether ante-mortems (inspections done before the animal is killed) can be done via video in emergency situations.

The change would allow video inspections of an animal that is unfit for transport. The inspection would confirm that emergency slaughter is appropriate and would be approved by a provincial meat inspector.

Current post-mortem requirements would continue to be enforced, meaning a carcass must be transported to an abattoir within two hours for processing.

Smith said the organization would like to see video ante-mortems because it’s challenging and costly to have them done in person. There is a shortage of veterinarians to do them, he said.

As well, he added, transporting animals that are unfit for travel present an animal welfare issue.

The province also wants to see what changes can be made regarding salvage and sale of meat byproducts, as well as changes for antimicrobial interventions.

Antimicrobial interventions are applications done on carcasses in abattoirs to help prevent potential bacterial outbreaks.

Interventions are currently done voluntarily. The government said even though they are helpful in reducing risks, uptake has been slow.

Smith said he wouldn’t want to see interventions further regulated. He believes the market will dictate whether processors find them necessary.

“We want processors to use whatever intervention that gets the best results,” he said. “We want meat to be safe, so whatever steps the processor deems necessary, we would support that.”

The meat inspection survey was available here, though it closed Feb. 25. The current regulations expire in July.

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