Have gun will travel: Coronavirus at meat plants builds demand for mobile butchers

By Rod Nickel
WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Slaughtering cattle is a lonely but personal affair for Gerrit vande Bruinhorst, 55, the mobile butcher at Picture Butte, Alberta.
On that day, Vande Bruinhorst, a .303 rifle in hand, arrives early at a customer's ranch. He wears boots, overalls and a rubber apron to catch blood.
With a shot to the forehead, the 1300 pound Black Angus handlebar goes straight down. Vande Bruinhorst brings it to his shop, where he will hang the carcass for 14 days before cutting it. His wife Dicky wraps up and the rancher returns to pick up the meat.
He kills one or two a day.
"What I like best is that I work from home and I'm not always stuck at home," said Vande Bruinhorst, who immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands at the age of 18. "I travel all over the region. It's just a pleasant way to make a living."
Vande Bruinhorst, one of Alberta's 113 mobile butchers, earns about CAD 500 per animal. In contrast to slaughtering in a facility, no inspector is present when the meat is killed, provided that the consumption of the meat is restricted to the agricultural household.
With coronavirus outbreaks slowing North American meat factories and the growing number of consumers wanting to buy meat directly from farmers, the Canadian and US governments are under pressure to expand animal slaughter for public consumption.
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However, opponents say that restrictions on mobile butchers should remain strict as slaughtering without inspectors present could pose a health risk.
In Alberta, where coronavirus infections overwhelmed Cargill Inc [CARG.UL] and JBS <JBSS3.SA> beef plants this spring, the province is reviewing the rules for selling meat from the farm.
The slaughter also takes place on US farms. The number of mobile slaughter units approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), including inspectors, has almost doubled to 16 in three years.
When consumers discovered significantly higher prices for retail coolers, Alberta rancher Allan Minor cried out for his beef. However, in small slaughterhouses flooded with cattle because large plants slowed production, the slaughter room was scarce.
"You now have cattle and customers who are ready to buy it, but your hands are tied," he said. "If the mobile butchers could come to your ranch and it would be legal to sell the meat, that would help."
Brent Dejong, a mobile butcher from Fort Macleod, Alberta, said the regulations should allow his customers to sell meat to the public, provided the customer knows that it has not been inspected.
"The buyer has to be careful - just like buying a used car," he said.
Use of state-approved wheeled slaughterhouses in the United States should increase, but limited numbers of inspectors are holding them back, said Patrick Robinette, owner of Micro Summit Processors, a North Carolina slaughterhouse.
"With COVID, mobile slaughter will be an essential tool," said Robinette. "It is time to redesign how we bring food from the field to the plate."
The North American Meat Institute, which Packer represents, sees mobile units as a good option for some pet owners, said Vice President Sarah Little. However, she said that expanding the program would not significantly compensate for the loss of production.
US regulations also allow "duty-free establishments," including mobile butchers, to slaughter cattle without an inspector present, provided that the meat is only allowed to be consumed by farmers, their households, and workers, a spokeswoman for the USDA Food Safety Service said and inspection.
Some animal rights groups prefer more slaughter on the farm, which eliminates the stress of being transported to packaging plants and animals that hear the death of others, said Leah Garces, president of the Mercy for Animals activist group.
Fast line speeds in farms can force workers to hurry up and cause additional suffering to the animals, she said.

Others say that slaughter should only take place under the eyes of the inspectors.
"The rules that we are now following are in effect for a reason," said Jim Johnson, owner of the Alberta Prairie Meats slaughterhouse. "There will be someone who screws the system and sells Roadkill or something."
In the neighboring provinces of Alberta, stricter rules for slaughtering un inspected cattle are already in place.
British Columbia announced this month that it would allow more farmers and butchers to slaughter a limited number of animals for direct meat sales.
Saskatchewan allows the public sale of meat from animals slaughtered on farms, provided the consumer knows that the meat is not under control.
Back in Picture Butte, a visitor asks vande Bruinhorst whether he can slaughter an ox of his choice from a nearby feedlot.
Buying his meat would violate Alberta's rules, said Vande Bruinhorst.
"Customers really believe that the meat will taste better if the animal doesn't jump around on the way to a foreign facility," he said.
"You want to do it locally."

(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; editing by David Gregorio)

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