Monday 9 September 2013

Food Fight

Oh, Manitoba. Just when you start looking sane, you go back to your old wacky ways.

Recall that Manitoba is the province where you can't sell a potato without, well, hassles.*

Now, read this one and weep. Since I was a kid in Manitoba, the government made much fuss about agricultural diversification, wanting farmers to move to more processing and oddball thin-market crops.

The Cavers at Harborside Farms are a great example of how this can be done well. They raise Berkshire hogs outside of Pilot Mound, a small town a couple hours southwest of Winnipeg. They started curing hams following old Italian recipes. Bartley Kives reports:
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.
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.
So, was anything wrong with their cured meats? No. Absolutely nothing. But they didn't follow the approved process. Why? Because there wasn't one. They were following traditional processes, the food was safe, and they'd asked the government for advice on making sure they were also compliant with any process specs that the government might wish to impose.
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.
Were the Cavers selling unfit food? No. An informed correspondent tells me that Manitoba Health has no adopted procedures as yet for dry cured meats. The Cavers tried proving that their product was safe, by various bacteria, moisture, and pH tests at the Portage Food Lab. But there's no standard that the government could point to showing whether it was good enough.

Because Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI) does not have Manitoba Health standards against which they can judge things, they just took all of the Cavers' stuff. Even if the Cavers perfectly followed all of the Italian standards, they're still in violation of Manitoba law. Because they're not following Manitoba standards. Because nobody has written any Manitoba standards.

A rational province would, where no official provincial standard exists, simply adopt an existing proven standard from an outside trusted source and verify that a Manitoba producer's practices meet that standard. Alternatively, perhaps somebody in Manitoba should start trying to get approval to sell chocolate-coated cotton.

There's a petition up here wishing that the Manitoba government be sensible. I hope it's successful.

* See:


  1. I feel for these farmers. At Cooperative Extension in California almost 20 years ago, I was working with small-scale farmers who wanted to do butchery and food processing on farm. What a palaver. The econ development folks try to encourage innovation and diversification, and the ag and health people shut it down.

  2. A palaver. And an indaba, and a punchayet, and a pow-wow....