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Sask. tests cameras in meat plants

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Sask. tests cameras in meat plants
this document web posted: Wednesday March 30, 2005 20050331p04

By Karen Briere
Regina bureau

A pilot project testing the use of cameras and computers to aid slaughter plant inspection is drawing criticism from some Saskatchewan meat packers.

The provincial government last November placed two cameras at one of the 80 abattoirs that fall under public health legislation.

These plants, which mainly custom slaughter and process, are inspected at least once a year by health region personnel, but can sell meat almost anywhere in the province.

One camera watches the animal as it comes into the plant. It would detect obvious signs of a disease like BSE or an injury, said Mitchell Demyen, director of food safety and regulation for the agriculture department.

The other camera watches the slaughter, zooming in on the carcass.

Demyen said a former inspector is also on the site. The idea of the pilot project is to compare what the inspector sees with the image the cameras record to determine whether there is any future role for technology in the meat inspection process.

"We are completely happy with the results in health inspected facilities," he said, referring to food safety.

At the same time, there is a consumer perception issue, he said.

Saskatchewan is one of the last jurisdictions to allow uninspected meat sales. Yet, it would be expensive to have inspectors at the health inspected facilities because they are located throughout the province.

"We started to explore the distance inspection route," Demyen said.

The department is starting to get an even flow of information from the cameras and later this summer there will be enough data to analyze how the system is working.

But for the 13 domestic plants that have Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors on site during slaughter, but are only allowed to sell meat within the province, the idea that the other facilities could move up a level on the inspection chain isn't sitting well.

"It's a gift to the health plants," said Trent Ens of Superior Meats in Swift Current.

These plants don't have to build or operate to the same standard as domestic plants but they have access to most of the same markets, he said.

The province would like some of the domestic plants to become federally inspected, which would allow them to ship outside provincial borders. But many are leery, wondering if any new markets or extra capacity will be worth it after the U.S. border opens to Canadian cattle.

The bigger packers are "really going to sock it to the little guys" once that happens, said another domestic plant operator.

Money redistributed

Demyen said the province has offered the domestic plants some incentives to "go federal."

Right now the province pays 83 percent of the CFIA inspection cost on behalf of the domestic plant; the owner pays the rest.

Instead of paying that money to CFIA, the government would make the same payment back to any plants that upgrade. That payment would be made for two years.

The province also offered support so new federal facilities could implement Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points programs.

Ens said most businesses don't want the government financially involved in their operations.

"All we want is for the government to monitor our food safety," he said.

Ens and Demyen agree there is already enough domestic slaughter capacity because big retailers have about 80 percent of the market and purchase only federally inspected meat.

One estimate found that the domestic and health inspected facilities, along with on-farm slaughter, would only need to kill a total of 81 animals each day to fill the 20 percent that's left.

But Ens said it would be better to open up interprovincial trade rules rather than urge domestic plants to become federal.

Meanwhile, Demyen said the department will fully consult with the industry once the pilot project results are in. It would also like to test the cameras in plants of different sizes.

Any recommendations for change have to be approved by the provincial cabinet.
 
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