Butcher & Butcher is a source for PEI meats //photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty


Small scale butcheries and meat producers finding markets beyond PEI

FOREWORD: The following article was written and submitted to Salty back in March when it was still possible to walk into any shop without regarding every other human being and touchable surface as a potential disease vector.

If the pandemic has any silver lining, it’s that it has made visible the already existing invisible fault lines in our supply chain and food production methods that until now has more or less frictionlessly supplied our store shelves, as well as restaurants, hotels, schools, hospitals, prisons, and other institutions with reasonably priced food. What became clear while I was interviewing butchers and farmers for the article is that any disruption, large or small, such as the February fire at the MacQuarrie Meats processing facility, creates problems all along the chain for everyone. We’ve seen these cascading effects all over North America, with shortages of certain products on store shelves coinciding with oversupply being unceremoniously dumped, as we’ve seen dairy producers pouring out vast quantities of perfectly good milk and livestock farmers having to make the heartbreaking decision to kill and dispose of animals that can’t be slaughtered and processed for market because the institutional side of the supply chain has suddenly collapsed.

We might look at the slow rebuild of our old way of life as an opportunity to ask questions about these food production methods. As convenient and cheap as the old supply chain and food processing system was, maybe it’s worth asking why so few large companies, such as Cargill and Smithfield, supply such a large percentage of cheap meat filling grocery store shelves, and whether we might be better off supporting people working in our own backyard than unthinkingly reconstructing the previous business model.

One thing the pandemic has made abundantly clear is that there is no such thing as “cheap meat” or cheap anything. If you’re buying a product that costs a third of what it would cost to produce locally and to a higher standard of quality, then it’s likely that “cost” is simply being passed along or embedded, whether in miserable labour conditions for workers, poor living standards for animals, and production methods that any one of us would hesitate to participate in ourselves unless they were made invisible to us.

On that cheerful note, please enjoy this window into the past, a portrait of PEI’s butchery and meat production scene, which, after the ashes of the current crisis have settled, should provide an enviably high quality and sustainable foundation on which to build a less shaky and more dependable system. —Terry Dawes

It’s only recently that beef from Prince Edward Island has begun to appear on menus in trendy restaurants and in high-end butcheries in places like Montreal and Toronto, a development that seems to have been triggered by the values of mainland food enthusiasts suddenly aligning with the type of food production methods and local knowledge that Islanders have taken as a given for decades.

At Boucherie Grinder (Grinder Butcher), on Montreal’s rue Notre-Dame, PEI grass-fed beef is displayed alongside premium-priced Wagyu and dry-aged triple-A beef, like jewelry in a glass display. The head butcher there tells me that what he values about Island meat is its “élevage”, or upbringing, with its diet consisting mainly of grass and, perhaps the Island’s special secret ingredient, potatoes.

PEI beef for sale in Montreal //photo credit: Terry Dawes

Which only proves that sometimes the spectator sees more of the game. Just ask Waqar Ahmed, raised in Pakistan and recently moved from Ontario to PEI, for the “better quality of life,” he said, now working at Butcher & Butcher in Charlottetown.

“The meat from Prince Edward Island is very good. I don’t know what they do with their cows but it’s good,” he said. “Our meat, Prince Edward Island meat is the best meat all over Canada. If you go to Ontario, you’ll see a lot of places sell PEI beef.”

When I put to him the Montreal butcher’s appreciation of upbringing, Waqar agreed. “It is very important, yeah. It depends on what they eat, it depends on how they walk in the fields, how they have been treated. It depends on everything, to be honest. For me, for a butcher, a cow needs good care.”

Adding to what differentiates the PEI practice of cattle preparation from factory farming he explained, “On top of that, what I’ve found is that they have a very good quality of slaughtering. They care about their animals. They don’t abuse their animals, I would say.”

Waqar Ahmed is a butcher at Butcher & Butcher in Charlottetown
//photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

It helps that Butcher & Butcher brings in whole animal carcasses, which are broken down into primal and then retail cuts, as compared with larger-scale supermarket butcheries, which essentially receive cryovaced pieces of meat, including inside rounds, sirloins, ribs and short loins, packed in cardboard boxes arriving en masse from places like Brooks, Alberta or frequently the United States.

When it comes to PEI meat, whether for export or the domestic market, Scott Drake of Steerman’s Quality Meats agreed that what sets it apart in terms of quality are exactly the small-scale, family-run business approach, which by definition you won’t find in the factory farm approach of large-scale facilities from the west.

“No, you can’t compete with that supply chain,” Drake said. “With our product, you have to focus on quality. That’s what sets it apart.”

Drake and his family operate a mixed farm with 300 head of cattle, 100 hogs, 200 turkeys, 300 chickens, foraging on grain and grass grown on their 400-acre plot of land.

Asked whether he sees any differences in the business over the past decade he replied, “Used to be someone who was in the same business as I was here, they thought of me as the competition. Now we’re all much more of the idea that we’re better off working together. There’s community support now, with more customers telling me they want to buy local.”

Almost all of Travis Cummiskey’s client base is local, either through direct sales to consumers arriving at Glen Lake Pasture Farm in Tarantum, partnering with processors such as Founder’s Delicatessen, or supplying directly to several Island chefs and restaurants, not to mention the odd tourist who’ll arrive specifically for Island meat to take back to the mainland.

Travis Cummiskey, Glen Lake Pasture Farm //photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

Whether through savvy marketing or simply through word-of-mouth publicity, off-Island consumers and suppliers seem to be waking up to the power of the PEI brand when it comes to quality of meat.

“I was actually just at a conference on the weekend, and it was fascinating,” Cummiskey said. “A&W made a presentation where they announced that in the near future they’re going to be using exclusively Canadian grass-fed and grass-finished beef. And this is partly down to a survey they did where a customer rated their experience of eating beef higher than they would have, depending on whether they know in advance if the meat they’re eating is local and where it’s from and how it’s raised.”

If positive marketing surveys relating to the ethical processing of animals are now driving bottom-line business practices at a national chain fast-food restaurant, it says a lot about how much the market for meat, and food in general, has changed over the past five years and is still changing.

Cummiskey also mentions that there is an interest among some Island meat producers of participating in a certification process indicating that their product is grass-fed or grass-finished.

Repeating a theme common to every Island meat producer, Ryan MacPhee of JL MacPhee Meats, a fourth-generation family-owned and run abattoir in Clyde River said, “We buy our animals from small family farms. We have a direct relationship with the farmers that we buy the animals off of. They are small family farms that grow their own feed.”

“PEI is small and unique,” MacPhee said. “The farms are smaller. The cattle are on pasture for a while,” confirming Ahmed of Butcher & Butcher’s observation that Island meat processing facilities, farms and livestock operations put the general welfare of the animal ahead of other concerns.

“Things have really changed over the last five to ten years,” MacPhee said. “The industry has seen a major decline in abattoirs. What consumers are looking for has changed. Cuts that weren’t so popular years ago are now the biggest seller. The diversified population has opened the door to a more whole animal butchery.”

That smallness and uniqueness, however, can lead to a capacity shortfall when one part of the chain snaps, as happened in February when the MacQuarrie Meats processing facility, the largest abattoir on PEI, went up in flames, with a future rebuild still under consideration but uncertain.

“It’s created a real bottleneck,” Drake said. “You’ve got all these farmers with their cattle, and they’ve got to go somewhere, maybe off-Island if they have to. But they care for their animals like family.”

Brad Dorion of Founder’s Delicatessen points out that even with the increased demand for Island beef both at home and away, the actual number of cows raised for beef production on PEI, not including dairy, number approximately 10,000 head of cattle.

Luckily for him, 95 percent of the product sold through Founder’s Delicatessen is pork-based, including processed meats and charcuterie such as bacon, sausages, salami, pepperoni etc.

“I don’t like to think of butchery as an art,” Dorion admitted refreshingly, considering that so many butchers talk about their trade in terms approaching an aesthetic you’d not normally find in the run-of-the-mill grocery trade. For Founder’s Delicatessen, too, it’s a time of expansion. “We’re specializing in value-added meats, but we’re going to be venturing into fresh meats this summer.”

Brad Dorion, butcher and owner of Founders’ Delicatessen
//photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

Citing his collaboration with farmers like Glen Lake Pasture Farm’s Travis Cummiskey, Dorion emphasizes the fundamental principle of what sets the Island meat and butcher community apart. “We work with people that I know. I know the producer and I’ve seen their operation, and I agree with their values.”

About Terry Dawes

Terry Dawes is a Montreal-based writer, having graduated with Fine Arts degrees from both Concordia University and the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver. He grew up on Prince Edward Island.

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