Ottawa Valley Meats used money from a sharp rise in sales during the pandemic toward buying a local abattoir, or slaughterhouse, which the company hopes can help increase the amount of local meat processing.
The Ottawa-based meat seller bought Tom Henderson's Meats and Abattoir in Chesterville, Ont., through a joint venture with the owners of Hog's Haven and Gillette Farms in May.
The purchase helps them test an alternative approach that builds a direct link from farm to front door, especially as demand has grown during the pandemic.
"The whole movement of support local seemed to explode, and it was gas on the fire at that point," said Darius Campeau, owner of Ottawa Valley Meats.
"All of a sudden, our message was really ringing through for a lot of people."
Henderson's abattoir was set to either close or be sold to an outside investor when longtime owner, Tom Henderson, retired. Instead, Campeau stepped in to take it over.
"It's been operating for 40 years in the area, and without it, there'd basically be nowhere to process pork and very few places to process beef," said Campeau.
Backlog for farmers
While federally licensed abattoirs can sell processed meat overseas and between provinces, provincially licensed abattoirs have struggled because they can only sell within the province.
Ontario's provincially licensed abattoirs are also smaller, and they have begun to disappear — from 235 in 2000 to 120 today, according to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.
Eastern Ontario farmers who spoke to CBC News said they're now forced to book a spot at an abattoir as much as a year in advance. Many point to a lack of slaughterhouse capacity as a major hurdle in getting their livestock to market.
Campeau felt those pressures as demand for food delivery of all kinds, including local meat, rose sharply during the pandemic.
"All of a sudden, buying from local farmers became as easy as a click away," he said. "We needed to up production. So as soon as we took over [the abattoir], we doubled the staff there … and we have plans to double over again."
Food scares changed regulations
Regulations designed to keep large abattoirs safe for consumers can make it harder for smaller abattoirs to meet local demand, said Sarah Berger Richardson, a University of Ottawa professor who studies food law.
Richardson said many of the current food safety regulations came in response to food scares in the early 2000s. Those regulations also happened at the same time as an upheaval in Canada's food systems.
"The problem is the economics — the economies of scale, the buying power of the supermarkets and grocery chains," she said.
"In order to have the facility that can meet all of our food safety requirements — which exist for a good reason — they need to operate at a particular level of scale."
Franco Naccarato, executive director of Meat and Poultry Ontario, said the industry will need to channel the mind of the tech sector, and private investment might be the long-term solution to saving abattoirs.
"We have to find new and innovative ways of getting investments into the sector," said Naccarato.
"Government grants is always the highest on the list from the industry, but we need to look at alternate ways of attracting dollars to our sector."