Meat inspection rules continue to vary

Recently the Alberta Agriculture department announced some changes to its meat inspection protocol.

Recently the Alberta Agriculture department announced some changes to its meat inspection protocol. They weren’t big changes, but had the effect of reducing some of the red tape faced by the 110 provincially-regulated abattoirs. Small local slaughter houses are a fixture throughout most of Alberta and almost universally used by livestock growers usually to process meat for their own use or for local sales. Many of these facilities also process game animals harvested by hunters. The Alberta government has regulated meat inspection in provincial processing facilities for over 80 years.

Big meat processors and manufacturers are regulated and inspected by federal statutes under the auspices of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. They play that role for any meat product that crosses provincial or international borders. The rationale for having essentially two parallel meat inspection programs baffles or exasperates many depending on your use of the facilities. Over the years assorted livestock producer groups have lobbied federal and provincial governments to find ways to merge the two systems to facilitate private sales by livestock owners. Past Minsters of Agriculture have tried to move that idea forward but have not had much luck. The fact that significant progress has not happened does raise a lot of questions, even concerning food safety.

The starting goal for both the provincial and federal inspection systems is to find any indications of disease, contamination or poor health that might affect the safety of meat products for consumption. There are some similar technical steps that both systems use but their differences are significant. A major difference is that federally inspected meat plants require supervision and inspection by licensed veterinarians. Provincial plants utilize trained and licensed meat inspectors that do not have to be veterinarians. Federal plants also have robust laboratory testing protocols that are done in real time.

The reality is that the federal inspection is much more costly, but is offset by economies of scale. Small provincial plants could not afford the sophisticated federal approach with their limited throughput. The question is, are they less safe than federal plants. Recent outbreaks of listeria and e-coli would imply that provincial plants may be safer, being the big outbreaks occurred at federally inspected facilities. Obviously there is more to the story as to which inspection system is better or worse. Sheer throughput alone is a big consideration in any comparison. Also major grocery chains and franchise restaurants only buy their meat from federal plants.

Livestock producers argue that the provincial system has proven to be safe and that they should be able to sell their own inspected meat products across provincial borders. The point being if the provincial inspection process is good enough for Albertans to safely consume meat products then it should be good enough for consumers in other provinces. That would seem like common sense but that runs directly into meat inspection regulations in other provinces. They would want some sort of reciprocity for their own provincial inspection process. That’s where the process comes to a stop as the provincial systems are not always the same (which is the main reason there is a universal Federal system across the country).

There would also be opposition by the federal plants who would not appreciate any competition from small plants that don’t have to meet the higher inspection standards faced by the bigger plants. The biggest roadblock to any blending of the two systems into one standard would be the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. This rather prickly federal agency would not even consider the thought of changing their standards even if it made sense. That also puts the process at a standstill as federal inspection is just not cost effective at the small abattoir level.

The only hope may be some technological process that can reduce the cost of the federal inspection process and that could be transferred to provincial abattoirs. Research continues in expanding computerized visual inspection technology. That process is already in use in grading and sorting out visual defects in many food products. It’s been shown to be much faster and more effective than inspection by humans.

The downside is that meat inspection, especially for beef, continues to be a highly sensitive area when it comes to food safety so it will probably be held to different and higher standards regardless of the technology. In the meantime the parallel meat inspection protocols in Alberta will just continue to carry on.