Canada: Winnipeg beef packing project to press ahead

A new Winnipeg slaughter plant will go ahead despite the loss of $10 million in federal funding and an effort by Manitoba Beef Producers to end the voluntary $2 checkoff funding the project, according to its chief executive.

“We are ready for shovels in the ground when we finish our financing, and when Mother Nature co-operates,” said Doug Cooper, president and CEO of ProNatur, formerly called Keystone Processors. “We’re expecting those two things to collide about the second week of March.”

Cooper suggested that opposition to the project that surfaced at the recent Manitoba Beef Producers annual meeting didn’t reflect the views of a majority of the province’s cattle producers.

“They have every right to put in a resolution to lobby to do away with the checkoff and they did by a vote of 24 to 21,” said Cooper. “Now I don’t know if there are more than 50 cattle producers in Manitoba, but I’m betting there are.”

But attendees at the Manitoba Forage Council’s recent annual Grazing School didn’t seem ready to rally around the project.

“We’re not here to be antagonists,” Cooper told the unresponsive crowd, adding it’s time for producers to decide if they want the plant to go ahead.

“This plant should be built if Manitoba producers want it, and the best way for them to say they want it is to continue the voluntary checkoff,” Cooper said. “And really it goes a step beyond that. Because this checkoff is voluntary, they can request this money back, so if Manitoba producers want this they will leave it in.”

The voluntary $2 checkoff was created to finance the Manitoba Cattle Enhancement Council, which was formed in the wake of the BSE crisis, with the province matching funds. The council changed its name to Keystone Processors Ltd. after merging with producer-owned Natural Prairie Beef Inc. in 2008, but due to potential brand confusion south of the border, the company has now been rechristened ProNatur.

It wants to build a 63,000-square-foot plant on Marion Street in east Winnipeg capable of processing 250 animals a day. The plant has been designed so it can easily increase capacity to 500 animals a day.

“Huge demand”

A major element of its business plan is to process kosher and halal beef, which requires having religious personnel on site to ensure cows are slaughtered in a way prescribed by Jewish and Muslim dietary laws.

“In fact, 31 per cent of our throughput is planned to be (a) religious harvest,” said Cooper. He added meat processed at the plant would be shipped to three different continents.

“There is a huge demand for this,” he said.

Cooper said the plant will process at a slower pace to allow time for the religious certification to occur, but will be able to command a substantial premium for kosher and halal beef. He said the project has secured $18 million in funding from RBC, and is negotiating with private investors and venture capitalists to replace the $10 million in funding withdrawn by the federal government this summer.

The company is also contacting beef producers to line up a supply of cattle.

“We hope to identify these niche markets and offer people an array of programs to choose from, and also develop relationships right through the chain,” said Butch Shadbolt, director of producer relations.

— Shannon Vanraes is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator