Ontario beef farmers are struggling to find buyers for their cattle with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s (CFIA) recent decision to revoke federal slaughter, processing and export licenses for Ryding-Regency Meat Packers and affiliates.
According to Beef Farmers of Ontario (BFO), the elimination of Ryding-Regency as a viable purchaser comes at a time when the provincial herd has already outstripped its production capacity.
Why it matters: Lack of viable buyers means Ontario’s beef industry could shrink despite continued demand.
“It’s taken it from a problem that needs dealt with to a crisis that needs immediate action,” says Joe Hill, president and feedlot director for BFO.
Two federal processors remain
The CFIA suspended production licenses for Riding-Regency and its affiliated companies in September, with the decision to officially revoke those licenses coming Dec. 2. In that time, Hills says BFO staff and members focused on helping the CFIA work through the investigation process as quickly and effectively as possible — in the hopes the plant would reopen.
Based on a variety of factors, however, that’s not what happened.
“That’s [CFIA’s] decision and we have to accept that,” Hill says. “We have to find ways to get cattle processed somewhere or… we’re going to see some decline in the industry.”
Hill says beef processing in Ontario is concentrated in the central part of the province, with Ryding-Regency Meat Packers handing 10 to 15 per cent until the suspension of its federal licenses. Now the Cargill plant in Guelph, St. Helens Meat Packers in Toronto and the smaller Apple Meadows Premium Beef near Mount Forest are the only remaining federally licensed plants.
He adds a number of provincially licensed plants exist, but these vary considerably in size, and many are already operating at increased capacity (e.g. extra shifts and weekends).
“They’re taking what they can in terms of added and fed cattle,” Hill says. “We were already over-supplied at the start, so that didn’t help.”
Other sale options limited
BFO has been encouraging farmers to seek alternative harvesting arrangements for existing inventory since Riding-Regency’s food safety issues began. There has been some success in this regard, Hill says, but it’s not consistent, and alternative options are limited.
Some producers have been able to ship animals west, but the transportation costs associated with doing so make this an unattractive option for most. Cross-border sales to American processors — a commonly looked-to solution in years past — are also not happening. Hill says this is because the cattle population in the United States is similarly well-stocked, meaning American buyers have no need to import.
“That used to be our outlet if we were oversupplied, but that’s kind of dried up over the last two years,” he says.
Ernie Hardeman, Ontario’s minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs said in an interview with Farmtario that his department has been discussing the situation with the federal agriculture ministry, on the business development side.
On Dec. 2, he said “As of today, we’ll start with the next chapter to start with some solutions. We are also very supportive of making sure all food is safe. Things were not happening as they should have been and they needed to deal with that.”
Long and short-term measures required
Hill reiterates it wasn’t uncommon for farmers to struggle moving animals during periods of oversupply, even when all three larger federal plants were operating.
From BFO’s perspective, ensuring the success of Ontario’s beef industry relies in part on a longer-term strategy for increased processing capacity. In the short-term, immediate measures are required to handle the cattle currently on-farm.
“Without processing growth the industry can’t grow to meet demand,” says Hill.
“There are cattle on-farm that should have been processed two months ago.”