Why some think Canada's beef business needs more smaller players

As big plants deal with COVID-19, there's talk of whether Canada needs a more diverse meat processing industry


Erin Collins and Tony Seskus, CBC News (Canada)

May 18, 2020


Michael Munton's family has been ranching in southern Alberta for four generations.


The Angus cattle they raise are the same they'll later take to their small processing facility and sell to customers as roasts, ground beef and steaks from their own store in the town of Picture Butte. They handle about 200 head of cattle per week.


"That relationship, that network of knowing that person that cuts your steaks, that package your ground beef that's a real value in my mind," said Munton, owner of Benchmark Angus and Ben's Quality Meats.


As COVID-19 has interrupted production at big meat processing plants across North America, there's been greater attention on smaller facilities and the role they play in a complex meat supply chain.


The pandemic has led to the slowdown or temporary closure of meat processing plants in Canada, including last week's shuttering of a processing facility near Montreal after it reported 13 per cent of its workforce had been diagnosed with COVID-19. The Canadian Meat Council, which represents meat processors, recently said that all plants are running slower than usual as they move to protect employee safety.


And there's discussion among industry observers, the National Farmers Union and players within the supply chain, about whether Canada needs a greater number of smaller-scale and mid-sized processors to help make the overall system more resilient to potential slowdowns, or shutdowns, at large plants.


'Other processors will be able to step up'


It's something Munton has heard from ranchers and retailers alike.


"The big processors, nothing against them, they are that size and that's wonderful," Munton said.


"But if there's lots of other smaller processors that are able to fill the void if someone being shut down, whether it's COVID-related or mechanical or some other type of situation that causes them limitations the other processors will be able to step up and ... not leave such a large void that's in the marketplace currently."


The Canadian meat industry is big business. According to the Canadian Meat Council, red meat consumption and exports supported 288,000 jobs across the country in 2016. From farm to fork, it generated $15.3 billion of economic activity in Canada the same year.


Normally, two Alberta plants produce around 70 per cent of the nation's federally inspected processed beef.


But neither is running at full capacity these days because of the impact COVID-19 has had on more than 1,500 workers at these facilities. Three workers employed by the Alberta facilities have died, as well as the father of a worker.


The situation, including the temporary closure of Cargill's plant near High River, has resulted in a backlog of more than 100,000 cattle in Alberta alone, according to an estimate last week from the Canadian Cattlemen's Association.


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