Provincial food inspectors do not take any action against agricultural producers without careful consideration, an official with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives said in the wake of this week’s seizure of cured meats at a southern Manitoba livestock farm.
On Wednesday, provincial inspectors seized about 160 kilograms of charcuterie from Harborside Farms, a 200-acre mixed-livestock farm near Pilot Mound, and issued the owners fines for selling food "unfit for human consumption."
The move came just three months after the same government arm lauded the prosciutto produced on site as Manitoba's best new food product.
Agriculture officials did not initially comment on the seizure. Acting chief veterinary officer Glen Duizer said Friday the province can not comment on the specifics of this or any case due to privacy concerns.
Duizer did say the province would not take any action without first attempting to work with the agricultural producer in question. He said all operations must observe food-safety regulations, regardless of their scale.
Awarded $10K government prize in May
In May, Manitoba Agriculture Food and Rural Initiatives awarded a $10,000 prize to Harborside Farms, after inviting owner Pamela and Clinton Cavers to compete in a contest called the Great Manitoba Food Fight in Brandon.
'At the end of the day, this is my farm and my livelihood. They've basically put us up against the wall'
The cash prize for the Cavers' pastured-pork prosciutto was intended to help the couple further commercialize the cured meats they had been producing on their farm since 2008, using traditional Italian recipes.
In June, inspectors from a different branch of MAFRI ordered Harborside to stop selling all of its cured meats, known in culinary terms as charcuterie, which had appeared on the tables of higher-end Winnipeg restaurants such as Pizzeria Gusto and Bistro 71/4.
The Cavers, who also hoped to sell their product at De Luca's Specialty Foods, claim they complied with the order.
But on Wednesday, as University of Manitoba environment students were about to tour the Harborside grounds, a pair of inspectors drove up and seized the couple's entire inventory of charcuterie -- about 160 kilograms of the cured pork and beef products known as prosciutto, lonzino, capicollo, bresaola, salumi and soppressata.
The Cavers said they were each handed $600 fines.
"The fine was for selling food unfit for human consumption. This was the same food the agriculture minister ate in May," said Pamela Cavers, referring to MAFRI Minister Ron Kostyshyn, who tasted Harborside's prize-winning prosciutto at the contest in May.
Students ordered to produce ID, delete images
U of M environment students present during the raid said a provincial inspector ordered them to produce identification and destroy images of the incident.
'This was the same food the agriculture minister ate in May'
"They asked for our ID and demanded we delete the pictures and video," said student Jonathan Ventura.
On Friday Duizer also addressed those demands, saying it is customary to request the names of any individuals present during an investigation.
Duizer could not, however, say why a demand was made to delete images of the incident. He said a review of the case may lead to improved procedures.
"They didn't even know what charcuterie was"
Charcuterie production is a small portion of the Harborside operation, where the Cavers and their three daughters raise grass-fed beef, two heritage breeds of pastured pork, sheep, goats and free-range chicken, ducks and geese. Harborside sells its meat directly to 79 subscribers and bills itself as the only Manitoba farm to sell protein -- as opposed to shares of fruits and vegetables -- in this manner.
The provincial inspectors took no issue with any aspect of the farm aside from the charcuterie operation, whose entire processes they deemed unsatisfactory, Pamela Cavers said. A June inspection yielded an order to build a separate drying room and acquire instruments to monitor pH levels and moisture, among other issues, she said.
The Cavers said they had been attempting to obtain specific guidelines for producing artisanal charcuterie, but could not receive direction from the provincial food development centre in Portage la Prairie.
"They said they had no idea what to compare it to," she said, adding officials had no experience with charcuterie. She said a call to the minister's office during the Wednesday raid yielded advice to call the chief veterinary officer. "They didn't even know what charcuterie was," she said.
'This was basically five years worth of testing. The bureaucracy hasn't caught up to the politicians'
The Cavers say the loss of their product amounts to only $8,000 worth of meat but also an invaluable setback in terms of production, as each batch of charcuterie amounted to an additional step toward perfecting the centuries-old artisanal craft.
"This was basically five years worth of testing," said Clinton Cavers, adding he's frustrated by the raid in light of the fact provincial officials encouraged him and his wife to commercialize their charcuterie production. "The bureaucracy hasn't caught up to the politicians."
'Scale-appropriate guidelines' needed
University of Manitoba lecturer and PhD candidate Colin Anderson, who instructs the students who were present during the raid, called the incident an "awful thing" that unfortunately isn't surprising, given the recent experience of other artisanal producers.
Regulatory systems in North America are set up to govern large agricultural producers and industrial operations, he said, advising Manitoba to develop "scale-appropriate guidelines" for small producers. Requiring small farms to obtain the same equipment as large factories is not feasible, he added.
"Farmers are trying to innovate and find new ways to earn a living. And when they do, this happens," said Anderson, who was present at Harborside Farms during the raid.
Bistro 71/4 chef and co-owner Alex Svenne said health inspectors are in effect pushing consumers toward industrial food at a time when many are seeking local, artisanal products.
"People have been making charcuterie for hundreds and thousands of years. But when there's a problem, it's always a large producer, not one of the little guys," Svenne said, referring to incidents such as the Maple Leaf Foods listeria crisis in 2008.
Pamela Cavers said she understands there must be food-safety regulations, but would appreciate clarity from the province regarding the specific application of those rules toward her operation.
"At the end of the day, this is my farm and my livelihood," she said. "They've basically put us up against the wall."
How can the government hit the right balance that ensures the safety of food yet still allows artisanal food production which often celebrates local ingredients? Join the conversation in the comments below.