PILOT MOUND -- Pam Cavers was waiting for her day in court.
"I was not about to say I was guilty of anything," said Cavers, interviewed on the livestock farm she owns with husband Clint near Pilot Mound, 175 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg.
RCMP and provincial food inspectors raided the Cavers' meat-curing shop at Harborside Farms last August. They seized $8,000 worth of cured meat, called charcuterie. Provincial inspectors charged the Cavers with selling meat "unfit for human consumption," and fined them $600 each.
The case sent shock waves across rural Canada. The Cavers are trailblazers in on-farm food production and have mentored other farmers, speaking at agricultural seminars and workshops. Plus, they had just won the Great Manitoba Food Fight and $10,000 for their prosciutto, a cured meat aged and dried for up to a year,.
So when the province raided their farm, it was like Ben Johnson being caught with steroids. The Cavers' livelihood depends on their reputation as ethical food producers. Their business concept is small, transparent food production, versus factory farms and multinational corporations. The $600 fines hardly mattered -- their reputation did.
The Cavers had no intention of paying the fines. The court date was set for this October. The couple phoned the provincial government, trying to find out what evidence it had against them. They wondered if they were going to need a lawyer. That's when they learned the province had dropped charges against them three months earlier, without telling them. The province told the Free Press a technical error was discovered on the tickets issued to the Cavers, which made them invalid.
It may be testament to what people think of the government that the raid didn't hurt the Cavers' business. In fact, business shot up.
The main business at Harborside Farms is selling meat from grass-fed beef, two heritage breeds of pastured pork, sheep, goats and free-range chicken, ducks and geese. They sell the meat on a yearly subscription basis. At the time of the raid, they were selling directly to 79 subscribers. Now they have 92 subscribers and can't take any more.
"We were turning away 10 customers a day," said Pam, when subscription renewals came up last March. They referred people to the Harvest Moon Society, a direct farm-to-consumer buying club.
It's been a different story with their charcuterie. The Cavers still aren't sure what they did wrong. Leading up to the raid, health inspectors regularly visited their meat-curing operation, they say.
The issue wasn't that they made unsafe food--the cured meat the province seized and destroyed had never been tested. It was that the Cavers hadn't documented each step as carefully as mass-produced foods, said Pam.
Examples she gave included the weight of the prosciutto prior to salting, the weight of the salt going into the prosciutto, the weight of the prosciutto before drying and the weight afterward. Instead, they only weighed the meat before and after the process. Nor did the Cavers know which pig each item came from.
Then in June, inspectors told the couple not to sell any cured meat. An inspector made a follow-up visit in July. Clint asked what they could do to make the charcuterie saleable and the inspector said he'd get back to them. Then came the raid in August. The Cavers insist they had complied with the province's order and not sold any of the meat since June.
The provincial spokeswoman said evidence related to such cases is not released unless charges proceed.
The couple is trying to work with the province again, including building a separate drying room and acquiring instruments to measure water activity in meats. They have also travelled to Italy, and been given tours of old world meat and cheese shops by a food inspector, the nephew of a Winnipeg Italian family.
But new obstacles have arisen.
The province insists the Cavers must use nitrates in their charcuteries. Nitrates are a preservative to prevent botulism. But health concerns are emerging about nitrates in processed meat. "We will not use nitrates. That goes against our whole ethic," Pam said. They offered to label their meat as "no nitrates added" but the province didn't accept that.
As well, because the Cavers' Berkshire hogs are free-range, they can contract parasite trichinella. If the meat is undercooked, consumers could develop muscle aches and require antibiotics. The problem is no one inspects hogs for trichinella in Manitoba. "We're kind of at an impasse," said Clint.