A Nova Scotia-based, Townships- born food systems expert is calling for sweeping changes to the management of the dairy sector in light of the ongoing strike at the Agropur plant in Granby.
The strike made headlines earlier this month when two million litres of milk were thrown away before they could be processed, although Producteurs du Lait du Québec has said that there has been no further waste since then. The plant, owned by the Agropur milk producers’ co- operative, processes about 10 per cent of the milk produced on Quebec farms, pasteurizing it and making it into grated cheese sold to supermarkets.
“We need to get used to labour disruptions – we had the Exceldor [chicken processing plant] strike last year and now we have Agropur,” Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax, told the BCN. “What people don’t always understand is that in this case, the people dumping the milk and the people owning the plant are the same people. The co-op model makes it easy to co-ordinate production, and it should be working – this is just poor management on the part of producers and processors.”
“I believe employees have every right to strike,” Charlebois clarified. “What we need to do is plan accordingly.”
Charlebois called on the province to “make dumping illegal” and allow surpluses to be managed by the federal government. “There’s already a strategic butter and cheese reserve; we should be able to [preserve] powdered milk or HTC milk. Technologies exist; it’s just a question of will.” He also said the supply management system in place for Quebec milk, which distributes loss among a provincewide pool of farmers, lets waste go unpunished.
Jean-François Dumontier, director of communications and public affairs for Producteurs du Lait du Québec, disputes that assessment. “It costs money to process milk, and we are working with a perishable commodity, so we have to take everything case by case,” he said. “We’re in a fragile situation as long as the [strike] is ongoing, because if there’s an issue at another plant, we lose room for manoeuvre. The current system is the best guarantee to limit these kinds of [dumping] situations.”
Several representatives of the dairy sector have proposed the building of an “emergency plant” to process surplus milk in the event of a strike or equipment failure. “A project like this would have to earn the support and active collaboration of the sector…and investment, profitability and labour issues would have to be considered,” said Mélissa Lapointe, a media relations officer for the Ministère de l’agriculture, des pêcheries et de l’alimentation (MAPAQ).
Milk is picked up raw from farms and pasteurized at plants such as the one in Granby before being packaged or processed into byproducts. It is illegal to sell raw (unpasteurized) milk in Canada, food banks can’t distribute it and it can’t be preserved for more than three days. Dumontier, Charlebois and Lapointe acknowledge that the ban on unprocessed milk makes it more difficult to offload surplus milk. “Whatever we do with surplus milk, including using the byproducts for animal feed, we need to process it first,” said Dumontier. Charlebois questioned the necessity of the raw milk ban. Raw milk can be legally sold in most U.S. states, and American raw milk can even be brought over the Canadian border. “It’s dangerous if you’re pregnant, but it’s [otherwise] consumable,” Charlebois said.
In light of the complexities inherent in milk production, transportation and processing, Dumontier said, “the risk of dumping will always be there.”
As of this writing, the strike at the Granby Agropur plant is ongoing. The plant’s 250 employees first voted to strike at the end of June, motivated by proposed changes to scheduling. Bernard Cournoyer, an advisor at the CSD-Construction, which represents the workers, said negotiations were ongoing and members would vote on whether to accept any offer.
Mylène Dupéré, vice president of corporate communications for Agropur, acknowledged that the employees were within their rights to strike, and said the co-op was “looking for solutions… to get the plant working again as soon as possible.”