In the early nineteenth century most meat originated with farm slaughter and village butchers, but meatpacking for export and to provision ships was becoming appreciable. By the 1850s production scale began to increase and butcher craftsmen established retail enterprises and meat-packing concerns to exploit the British bacon market. Hogs were slaughtered, the carcasses were dressed, and pork was cured and packed in barrels filled with brine during the winter months. In 1852 Laing Packing and Provision was established in Montreal and F.W. Fearman began operations in Hamilton, Ontario. William E. Davies (a precursor of Canada Packers) began business in Toronto in 1854 and in 1874 built Canada's first large scale hog-slaughtering facility in Toronto's east end.
The development of industrial meat packing in the American Midwest during the 1870s influenced meat processing in Canada. A growing railway network enabled the procurement of livestock from a vast hinterland and the distribution of chilled meat using reefer cars. With railway infrastructure in place, industrial scale meat processing developed mass production disassembly technologies using a largely immigrant labour force. Inaugurated in Chicago, the industrial meatpacking model was followed in other metropolitan centres of the Midwest such as St. Louis and Minneapolis and at a smaller scale in Toronto and Winnipeg.
Driven by buoyant export markets, the industry grew rapidly from 1880 to 1890. As meat processing industrialized, hundreds of the smallest butcher firms were absorbed by larger enterprises, which sought out international markets for their meat exports. By 1900 only 57 packing facilities remained, but over the preceding decade capital investment more than doubled, employment jumped from 1,700 to 2,400, and sales climbed to a new peak of $22.2 million. The last decade of the nineteenth century saw beef processing grow to rival pork.
Pat BURNS founded his cattle and meatpacking empire by supplying beef to railway gangs and the mining and lumber camps of western Canada's resource periphery in the 1880s. In 1890 he established his first substantial slaughterhouse in Calgary. P. Burns & Co (later Burns Foods) became western Canada's largest meatpacking company. In 1896 the Harris Abattoir was established in Toronto. With a slaughter capacity of 500 cattle per week, the Harris Abattoir was a bold innovation (it was a beef specialist at a time when most abattoirs killed all species), and unlike P. Burns and Company, it was intended primarily to export chilled sides of beef for the British market.
Influenced by calls for meat inspection in the United States resulting from the fictional account of packinghouse practices in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, J. G. RUTHERFORD, Veterinary Director General and later Livestock Commissioner for Canada, was instrumental in the federal regulation of meat processing. In 1907 Canada's first federal meat inspection legislation became law. The Meat and Canned Foods Act set rigid sanitation standards and required antemortem and postmortem veterinary inspection of all food animals whose meat was intended for sale across provincial or international borders.
Meat processing grew rapidly during World War I and many packers earned windfall profits. But the industry was left with surplus capacity in the 1920s, which prompted the withdrawal of several large American meat packers from the Canadian market and the creation of Canada Packers through the merger of William Davies and the Harris Abattoir. By 1930, the corporate structure of the red meat industry was established. The Big Three traditional, slaughtering packers (Canada Packers, P. Burns and Company, and Swift Canadian) slaughtered all species and processed their carcasses into a full line of fresh and processed meat products. Most of the plants of the Big Three were organized by the United Packinghouse Workers of America during World War II, and employment grew to 26 000 by 1960 as annual sales reached $1 billion. Poultry processors also grew substantially as scale economies became attainable for chicken and turkey processing and poultry consumption began to increase. Meat processing became, and remains, one of Canada's largest single manufacturing industries and the largest employer in the food-manufacturing group.
Like other FOOD AND BEVERAGE sectors, the livestock processors have very low profit margins, usually between 1 and 2 percent of sales. From the first industrial plants of the late nineteenth century, their profitability has always depended on high throughput, large-scale production, and salvaging the full value of animal by-products to attain the sales volume required to earn an acceptable rate of return.
The Modern Industry
The Big Three full-line slaughtering packers' segment of the industry restructured in the 1980s as domestic beef consumption fell and competition from American packers intensified. The Big Three withdrew from fresh meats and, through a complex series of mergers, many of their operations came under the control of Maple Leaf Foods, the leading hog processor in Ontario and western Canada. With ten pork and hog plants in Quebec and one in Red Deer, Alberta, Olymel (majority owned by Coopérative fédérée de Québec) is now Canada's largest pork and poultry processor. Schneider Foods (wholly owned by Smithfield Foods, the largest hog producer and pork processor in the world) operates large plants in Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Beef processing is dominated by three large plants: Cargill Foods of High River, Alberta, Lakeside Packers of Brooks, Alberta (controlled by Tyson Foods, the largest meat processor in the world), and Better Beef, an independent packer in Guelph, Ontario. Fowl production remains market oriented while poultry production has become highly concentrated: 20 percent of the plants account for 80 percent of the poultry output. Flamingo Foods (Quebec), Lilydale Foods (Alberta and British Columbia) and Maple Leaf Poultry (Ontario, Alberta, Nova Scotia) are among the largest. Large-scale production has become more important than ever before and meat-processing plants are becoming increasingly specialized in just one sex, age, and species of livestock and in a narrow range of meat products.
Federally inspected plants account for over 90% of all the meat processed in Canada. Since 1997 the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has been responsible for monitoring and enforcement of federal regulations. Federally inspected red meat-processing firms are represented nationally by the Canadian Meat Council in Ottawa. A significant proportion of the meat processing labour force is unionized and represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers.
From its inception, the meat processing industry has been a significant exporter; pork and beef exports are growing rapidly and export volumes account for about 40 percent of total production. The United States, Mexico and the Caribbean, Japan, and South Korea are the most important global importers of Canadian meat products. Meat and meat product exports now exceed wheat in dollar terms and have become Canada's largest agricultural export.
Author IAN R. MacLACHLAN
Audet, Bernard. Se Nourrir au Quotidien en Nouvelle France (2001); Broadway, Michael J. "Where's the beef: The integration of the Canadian and American beefpacking industries" Prairie Forum (1998); MacLachlan, Ian. Kill and Chill: Restructuring Canada's Beef Commodity Chain (2001); Rennie, James ed. The Growth and Development of Canada's Meat Packing Industry (1969) (Documentary)
Links to Other Sites
Canadian Food Inspection Agency
See the latest news about food saftey issues in Canada from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy
An extensive information source about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD.) From the Public Health Agency of Canada.
7 swine flu myths you should know about
Quick facts about swine influenza (swine flu) from the CBC website.
Mad Cow: The Science and the Story
An in-depth look at the impact of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) on Canada’s agricultural industry. Features audio and video news clips from the CBC.
Check out the history, care, and breeding of the Holstein cow at the Holstein Canada website.
Centre for Prions and Protein Folding Diseases
This site offers brief descriptions of neurodegenerative disorders such as BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy,“mad cow”), scrapie, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), and Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).
Meat Cuts Manual
Your illustrated guide to well dressed beef, poultry and other animal products. From the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
What is Listeria?
A fact sheet about Listeria bacteria and Listeriosis. Covers causes, symptoms, risk factors, and related public health issues. A Government of Ontario website.
Consumers Council of Canada
The website for the Consumers Council of Canada, an organization that "works collaboratively with consumers, business, and government in support of consumers' rights and responsibilities."
Glossary: Meat Processing Regulation and Inspection
A glossary of terms related to regulation and inspection of meat processing operations. From the Ministry of the Attorney General, Province of Ontario.
Public Markets Ltd.
A brief history of the Union Stock Yards, established by Public Markets Ltd. in the City of St. Boniface to provide a marketplace for Manitoba livestock producers. From the website for the University of Manitoba Libraries.
Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute
Check out this website for information and reports about current issues impacting on the productivity and competitiveness of Canada's agri-food sector.
Wallace McCain, Billionaire Founder of Maple Leaf Foods, Dies at Age of 81
A news story about the passing of Wallace McCain, Canadian businessman who founded Maple Leaf Foods after he and his brother Harrison started McCain Foods Ltd. From bloomberg.com.
Shawnadithit grew anxious waiting for her uncle, Longnon, to return to camp at the junction of Badger Brook and the Exploits River, deep in the wilds of Newfoundland...