‘It’s buyer be­ware,’ says worker about ab­sence of in­spec­tions


WIN­NIPEG Slaugh­ter­ing cat­tle is a soli­tary, but per­sonal busi­ness for Ger­rit vande Bru­in­horst, 55, the mo­bile butcher of Pic­ture Butte, Alta.

On this day, vande Bru­in­horst, a .303 ri­fle in hand, ar­rives early at a cus­tomer’s ranch. He wears boots, cov­er­alls and a rub­ber apron to catch any blood.

With one shot to the fore­head, the 1,300-pound Black An­gus steer goes straight down. Vande Bru­in­horst hauls it to his shop, where he will hang the car­cass for 14 days be­fore cut­ting it. His wife Dicky does the wrap­ping and the rancher re­turns to pick up the meat. He kills one or two per day. “What I like best is I’m work­ing from home, and yet I’m not al­ways stuck at home,” said vande Bru­in­horst, who im­mi­grated to Canada from The Nether­lands at age 18. “I travel all over the area. It’s just a pleas­ant way to make a liv­ing.”

Vande Bru­in­horst, one of Al­berta’s 113 mo­bile butch­ers, earns about $500 per an­i­mal. Un­like slaugh­ter in a plant, no in­spec­tor is present at his kills, on the con­di­tion that con­sump­tion of the meat is re­stricted to the farm house­hold.

With coro­n­avirus out­breaks slow­ing North Amer­ica’s meat plants, and more con­sumers seek­ing to buy meat di­rectly from farm­ers, Cana­dian and U.S. gov­ern­ments face pres­sure to ex­pand an­i­mal slaugh­ter for pub­lic con­sump­tion.

Yet op­po­nents say re­stric­tions on mo­bile butch­ers should stay tight, since slaugh­ter­ing with­out in­spec­tors present could cre­ate a health haz­ard.

In Al­berta, where coro­n­avirus in­fec­tions this spring over­whelmed beef plants owned by Cargill Inc and JBS , the prov­ince is re­view­ing the rules for farm-gate meat sales.

Butcher­ing also hap­pens on U.S. farms. The num­ber of mo­bile slaugh­ter units autho­rized by the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture (USDA), which in­clude in­spec­tors, has nearly dou­bled in three years, to 16.

As con­sumers dis­cov­ered sharply higher prices in re­tail cool­ers, Al­berta rancher Al­lan Mi­nor fielded more calls for his beef. But slaugh­ter space was scarce in small abat­toirs that be­came flooded with cat­tle as big plants slowed pro­duc­tion.

“You’ve got cat­tle ready to go right now and cus­tomers will­ing to buy it, but your hands are tied,” he said. “If the mo­bile butch­ers could come to your ranch, and it would be le­gal to sell the meat, that would help.”

Brent De­jong, a mo­bile butcher from Fort Macleod, Alta., said reg­u­la­tions should al­low his cus­tomers to sell meat to the pub­lic, pro­vided cus­tomers know it was not in­spected.

“It’s buyer be­ware — just like buy­ing a used car,” he said.

The use in the United States of fed­er­ally in­spected abat­toirs on wheels should ex­pand, but lim­ited in­spec­tor num­bers hold them back, said Pa­trick Robi­nette, owner of Mi­cro Sum­mit Pro­ces­sors, a North Carolina abat­toir.

“With COVID, mo­bile slaugh­ter is go­ing to be an in­te­gral tool,” said Robi­nette. “It’s time to re­design how we’re get­ting food from the field to the plate.”

The North Amer­i­can Meat In­sti­tute, which rep­re­sents pack­ers, sees mo­bile units as a good op­tion for some live­stock pro­duc­ers, said vice-pres­i­dent Sarah Lit­tle. But she said ex­pand­ing the pro­gram would not sig­nif­i­cantly off­set lost plant pro­duc­tion.

U.S. reg­u­la­tions also al­low “cus­tom-ex­empt es­tab­lish­ments,” in­clud­ing mo­bile butch­ers, to slaugh­ter live­stock with­out an in­spec­tor present, pro­vided the meat is for con­sump­tion only of farm­ers, their house­holds and work­ers, said a spokes­woman for the USDA’S Food Safety and In­spec­tion Ser­vice.

Some an­i­mal rights groups pre­fer more on-the-farm slaugh­ter, which elim­i­nates the stress of trans­porta­tion to pack­ing plants and of an­i­mals hear­ing the deaths of oth­ers, said Leah Garces, pres­i­dent of ac­tivist group Mercy for An­i­mals.

Fast line speeds in plants can force work­ers to rush, and in­flict ad­di­tional an­i­mal suf­fer­ing, she said.

Oth­ers say slaugh­ter should only oc­cur un­der the eyes of in­spec­tors.

“The rules we abide by now are in place for a rea­son,” said Jim John­son, owner of abat­toir Al­berta Prairie Meats. “There’s go­ing to be some­one who screws the sys­tem and sells road­kill or some­thing.”

Al­berta’s neigh­bour­ing prov­inces al­ready have looser rules for unin­spected live­stock slaugh­ter.

Bri­tish Columbia said this month it would li­cense more farm­ers and butch­ers to slaugh­ter a lim­ited num­ber of an­i­mals for di­rect meat sales.

Saskatchew­an al­lows the pub­lic sale of meat from an­i­mals slaugh­tered on farms, pro­vided that the consumer knows the meat is not in­spected.

Back in Pic­ture Butte, a vis­i­tor asks vande Bru­in­horst if he could slaugh­ter a steer of his choos­ing from a nearby feed­lot.

Buy­ing its meat would be against Al­berta’s rules, vande Bru­in­horst told him.

“Cus­tomers re­ally be­lieve the meat tastes bet­ter if the an­i­mal hasn’t bounced around on the way to a strange fa­cil­ity,” he said. “They want to do it lo­cal.”


Al­lan and Ger­ald vande Bru­in­horst pre­pare a beef car­cass in Pic­ture Butte, Alta.. They are work­ing for their un­cle, who is one of Al­berta’s 113 mo­bile butch­ers. Gov­ern­ments are un­der pres­sure to ex­pand an­i­mal slaugh­ter amid the sup­ply chain block­age caused by COVID-19 out­breaks at meat­pack­ing plants.

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