The artisan farmers taking over Victoria’s meat regulator

MAHMOOD FAZAL: On a wooden chopping board, chef Annie Smithers reclines a rare bird.

ANNIE SMITHERS: So you can see that it’s got these lovely legs and then a nice long neck and the little head still intact there with its little comb.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: She flicks her wrist… and herbs tumble onto the chicken.

ANNIE SMITHERS: I’ve taken the legs and the feet off from where you’d normally have the drumstick, and I’m going to put those aside for stock. The first thing that you’ll notice when we brown these legs off before we put them into a braising pan.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: The chicken lands with a sizzle… and a cloud of sweet smells rises from the pan.

Annie reaches over and paints one of the legs with white wine.

This isn’t your average supermarket chicken.

ANNIE SMITHERS: this is one of the famous milking yards Sommerlad chickens.

And Annie says — they’re a totally different breed.

ANNIE SMITHERS: So these are these are birds that are natural foragers. Yeah. They eat insects, they eat meat, they eat, you know, they’ll kill a mouse and eat it. They eat seeds and grass. They scratch, they bathe. And there was something about the way that the fat interplayed with the skin. And then when you got into actually eating the flesh is it was a deep, almost comforting thing of the fact of that’s what chicken is.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: Annie Smithers is the head chef at Du Fermier.. A restaurant in the small town of Trentham about an hour north west of Melbourne.

ANNIE SMITHERS: I’m just going to fry up some aromatics, a bit of bacon, bit of uh…some shallot… oh no I put leek in I think.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: She says if she could serve just one type of chicken, it’d be this one.

ANNIE SMITHERS: people are blown away by the fact that it actually tastes of something, because chicken has become something that, you… you don’t eat in restaurants because you see it as this almost throwaway food item that is so cheap and so plentiful.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: But as much as Annie would like to keep serving these birds in her restaurant.

She can’t.

Because this year, Milking Yard chickens — the only farm in Victoria that produces those birds — has been forced to shut down its production.

ANNIE SMITHERS: look, the news was not a surprise because being close to a number of my chicken farmers and egg farmers is I know I’ve lost two to chicken farmers who were farming free range, you know, normal birds and they have given up because it’s just too hard.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: Now, the Sommerlad breed will no longer be available in Victoria.

ANNIE SMITHER: I was incredibly sad that we’ve got to this point. I think that we I think it exposes an enormous weakness in our food system. And chicken is you know, chicken is seen as this incredibly affordable protein fix. But the underside of good chicken farming and interesting chicken breeds is just going to disappear from our diets if we don’t do something soon.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: This problem that Annie raises isn’t just an issue for those that eat at award-winning restaurants.

It doesn’t just raise questions about the ethics of what lands on our plate.

It goes further – It’s the symptom of a much larger problem.

I came across this story in a weird way.

I live on this hobby farm in regional Victoria and I’ve been thinking about raising my own meat birds.

I was looking for, something hardy that would thrive during an Australian summer.

BRUCE BURTON: So I’ve just got biosecurity, I’ll get you to put those fellas on.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: So I contacted Bruce Burton, the local chicken producer in our neck of the woods.

BRUCE BURTON: The birds all look very different. They really do, don’t they?

What’s with the naked neck? Well, the naked neck is supposedly from the Transylvanian naked neck variety. We’ve we really love them because they they cope really well with the heat, not so well with the Trentham winters, but they’re really good in the heat because there’s no obviously neck feathers to keep them too hot, so….

MAHMOOD FAZAL: Bruce was the same guy who supplied the Sommerlad birds to chef Annie.

The same guy who’s about to shut down his business after 8 years.

And as we talked… I was surprised to hear that he doesn’t really want to close down at all.

He just felt like he had no other option.

BRUCE BURTON: I think it’s a travesty.

To understand why… he says… you kind of have to go back to the start.

Bruce comes from a long line of hard yakka stock.

BRUCE BURTON: So I grew up in Warwick in Queensland. Uh…And I’m, I guess the seventh generation farmer in the family, all being beef, typically Herefords and Paul Herefords back seven generations, back to the first settlers in the Stanthorpe and Tenterfield area.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: After a stint in the airforce, Bruce worked for commercial airlines and as a consultant before coming back to farming and settling down in rural Victoria.

BRUCE BURTON: So we started looking around for a place and we landed on Trentham because it’s …um…it’s only an hour from Melbourne. It’s got great rainfall, it’s got the red volcanic soil. And most of all I had a fantastic little community and …um…that’s what really led us back to a place like this that we just simply fell in love with.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: He first bred sheep but they were destroying his trees.

So he took his animals to the market and put them up for sale .

He wasn’t sure if there would be much interest because they were older and classified as mutton.

But a chef took interest.

BRUCE BURTON: He looked at it and said, They look fantastic, whose are they? And I said, Oh, they’re mine. He said, Well, do you mind if I sample some and we sort of giggled to our self because no one’s going to like this stuff? We said, Sure, go, go ahead.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: And that’s when Bruce’s farming story took an unexpected turn.

The chef came back for more and Bruce began to realise that the secret was slow meat.

BRUCE BURTON: we learnt a very valuable lesson there, which was, you know, animals that have been treated right and grown to a mature age and allowed to fatten properly, produce a really flavoursome moist, you know, just wonderful textured meat. And rather than just put them to a feedlot and send them out at a young age, so.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: From then on, Bruce was hooked…

He travelled the world, sampling slow raised meat in France…

BRUCE BURTON: it was sort of kind of like being slapped in the face with flavour.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: …. and marvelling at the sheer diversity of chicken breeds in Europe

BRUCE BURTON: different ages, different gender, male and female, and most of them much, much older than what we would get in Australia.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: And when he returned to Australia, Bruce pulled up his boots and set out to raise his own birds.

But things didn’t go at all to plan.

His chickens were dying at an alarming rate.

After a chat with a vet — Bruce quickly realised that the modern meat birds in Australia, the two white birds; the Ross and the Cobb, just weren’t bred for the type of free ranging he’d imagined.

BRUCE BURTON: And I said, hey, you know there’s gotta…there’s gotta be a better way than this. We’d need to find a breed or type of chicken that would be amenable to living in its natural habitat, cause that’s where… that’s what the forest is. It’s its natural habitat.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: He eventually came across Michael Sommerlad who had developed a diverse breed for Australian conditions.

When Bruce began raising the Sommerlad chickens he realised they were costly to raise.

BRUCE BURTON: So the biggest hurdle we had initially was to see whether or not people would pay the price that we needed to make some money.

You know, if you said roughly ten times the price, you know, you wouldn’t be far off it. And we didn’t even know if people would like the flavour or the taste.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: But his customers were becoming increasingly conscious of another trade-off.

BRUCE BURTON: chicken has been one of those things that’s allowed this cheap lean dietary stable available to lots of people. So, you know, maybe there’s a place for that, but it all comes as a trade-off. And so, you know, when we put this sort of stuff in her mouth, we have to consider, you know, has it been raised? And is that the sort of ethics that I want in the food that I’m putting my mouth?

MAHMOOD FAZAL: The business began to take off with regular customers across Victoria.

But about four months ago… the business hit a massive hurdle.

The abattoir he’d been using to process his birds told him they could no longer help.

BRUCE BURTON: They said, look, we’re growing at such a rate, we simply can’t let you use the boning room anymore and we’re too busy.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: So Bruce went searching for another abattoir.

But it turns out…in the entire state of Victoria, there’s now only one abattoir that will take on small scale chicken contracts.

Bruce couldn’t use that facility because their automated chain doesn’t cater to the size differences of the Sommerlad breed.

BRUCE BURTON: and you can still see it very plainly in the birds when you look at them in the paddock. They’re a bit of a liquorice allsorts. They certainly. Look very diverse.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: Bruce looked into building his own abattoir… but it would have cost almost half a million dollars…

And there was another risk that he’d have to consider… in his mind, an even bigger one than the massive capital outlay…

BRUCE BURTON: we’d been hearing from a lot of people who’d started building abattoirs or boning rooms, particularly…uh… that the compliance requirements was terribly onerous and that the regulator …um… was draconian and heavy handed and, you know, applied these regulations that were… not appropriate to small scale farms. And …uh. it made the whole thing… I guess it made it scary. You know, we simply when you combine the amount of capital that you had to put in and the fact that you could invest all this capital across this value chain and at the whim of the regulator, uh…have a bottleneck created and closed the operation just on the basis of one thing. I mean, the risks are…are huge. And so you get to a point in life when you say, is it worth the risk? Is it simply at the whim of the regulator to close you down or prevent you from producing? Uhm…it was scary.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: Red tape became a massive problem and it was a problem unique to Victoria.

Poultry farmers I spoke to in Queensland and NSW, didn’t feel the same regulatory pressure.

So, where did this regulation come from and why?

It all began with a series of food-borne outbreaks.

The first… and most famous… was in Adelaide in early 1995 where contaminated Mettwurst – a type of spreadable sausage – started sending people to hospital.

ARCHIVE: A four year old Adelaide girl has died from poisoning, brought on by eating infected products from the Garibaldi factory.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: Twenty three others ended up with life long health problems.

ARCHIVE: For its part, Garibaldi is in damage control. It says the current situation is not a state issue but a major national meat industry problem. They say the bacteria was brought into the Garibaldi plant via raw meat purchased from Victoria.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: In the end, Garibaldi was found to be responsible.

The impact of the outbreak cost the Australian smallgoods industry over $400 million.

Two years later — there was another scare.

ARCHIVE: In 1997, more than 400 Sydney residents became ill after eating oysters from Wallis Lake in northern New South Wales.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: As with the Garibaldi case… Those who got sick from the contaminated oysters were still affected years later.

MAN: Well, at the present time, I’m still ill. I spend almost every afternoon back in bed.
REPORTER: Did the virus spread from you to your wife and your daughter?
MAN: Yes, it did.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: In an attempt to make the food we eat safer for all of us… State governments across the country started tightening the regulations that governed meat and seafood production.

In Victoria, the Meat Authority was overhauled.

And by 2003 – it had been completely replaced by a new body.

It was called PrimeSafe… and it started policing the sector with renewed vigour…

Its representatives started publicising the new approach

ARCHIVE: All abattoirs are subject to a regular audit schedule. If deficiencies are identified, they do it. The frequency is increased. In addition to that, PrimeSafe conducts random sampling programmes where we may attend the facility at any time.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: PrimeSafe became the sole authority regulating the production of meat and seafood in the state.

And it soon identified small scale producers as the biggest potential risk area — because small-scale operators often didn’t understand the regulation or couldn’t afford to employ food safety officers.

Stricter rules were introduced… and they were heavily enforced.

ARCHIVE: Victoria’s meat producing regulator is standing by its decision to cancel the licence of a Gippsland abattoir despite pleas from local farmers who say they’ve been happy sending their animals to the abattoir for 60 years.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: Butchers say that after the listeria management plans were introduced, most independent butchers stopped producing their own ready-to-eat products entirely. So that’s things like hams and roast beef.

For many — all the red tape, the paperwork, the costs and lack of clear information became too much to handle.

And small goods production became increasingly industrialised.

ARCHIVE: Both of them were pretty upset, I could see tears in their eyes and I said, Well what’s happening? And Colin said, We’ve been given an ultimatum. We either hand our licence in or we’re gonna have it taken from us.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: It seems there was another motivation behind the crackdown on small scale producers.

Because while small scale producers were in decline… the large-scale poultry industry in Victoria was levelling up — fast.

The regulator’s enforcement was in part about protecting this growth market from outbreaks of disease… and eliminating the risks they saw being posed by the smaller operators.

And it worked.

In Victoria,… Food contamination outbreaks caused by meat from the state’s meat producers practically disappeared…

Exports continued to grow and Victoria became the biggest exporter of chicken in the country.

But … small scale producers weren’t happy.

the success of the new regulatory body had come at a cost.

ARCHIVE: It’s one way from PrimeSafe. It’s my way or the highway. That is that is the response I have had from a number of people who’ve dealt with it as a regulator.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: And concerns were growing that PrimeSafe had been influenced by the industry’s big players.. like the Victorian Farmers Federation lobby group, VFF.

ARCHIVE: I think there’s too close a connect between the VFF, between politicians and between the chairmanship of PrimeSafe. Past three presidents of PrimeSafe have come from the VFF.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: Butchers I’ve spoken to In Victoria tell me — it’s now harder for small scale producers to butcher meat and process onsite than in almost any other state in Australia

And they say that the enforcement of the regulations can be ad hoc and difficult to understand.

TAMMI JONAS: Morning, Mahmood. How are you?
MAHMOOD FAZAL: Hey Tammi, how are you?
TAMMI JONAS: Good to finally meet you in person.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: I meet Victorian pig farmer Tammi Jonas in her refrigerated boning room.

TAMMI JONAS: And I’m going to do the hams in here.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: She’s with her son packing several mail order ham hocks into plastic bags before a trip back home to the States.

TAMMI JONAS: There’s four bags already, I need fifteen bags. And usually we give them a variety, there’s one persons dog who can’t have trotters.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: Tammi runs a meatsmith business under the banner of Jonai Farms.

Her business is so popular, there’s a 20-year waiting list in Melbourne for her monthly meat subscriptions.

Even though she’s undertaking a PhD… Tammi finds the regulations a nightmare to navigate… and the enforcement unpredictable and onerous.

She tells me about one strange experience with the regulator’s inspectors… the night before she was due to travel overseas.

TAMMI JONAS: we were flying to France to increase our skills around charcuterie and salumi making.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: And a car rolled up her driveway.

TAMMI JONAS: at 4:00 in the afternoon and two people got out in kind of uniforms

MAHMOOD FAZAL: They were inspectors from PrimeSafe.

TAMMI JONAS: And we’re like, Oh, that’s weird. But honestly, we didn’t have any bad feelings. We’re just about to get on a plane. We thought it would be fine.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: The Inspectors started asking a few innocuous questions.

TAMMI JONAS: and they said, Oh, we hear that you’ve made some salamis and we’d like to see them.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: Tammi eagerly offered to show them around.

TAMMI JONAS: Being the naive enthusiast that I am, I was like, Yeah, yeah, we have the cover page on our Facebook, so and they’re just hanging round. You can actually see them from where we’re standing. They’re just right up here in the shed. You’re full of me. And I took them up there and they said, Well, we’ve received a complaint.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: The inspector told Tammi PrimeSafe had received reports following a public event they’d held on the farm.

They said someone had complained about having seen a pig’s head with a bullet hole in it.

Which would be illegal if true… as Tammi doesn’t have a licensed processing facility.

TAMMI JONAS: And I said, Well, that’s not true.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: Then the inspectors started raising other issues.

TAMMI JONAS: and she said, There were dogs around. And I’m like, Well, sure, we were outside. In a shed. True. They weren’t on the table. But they were around. And the third thing she said was, you let people take salamis off the property. And we said, you know, we did it because they helped make them. And there’s more than we need. And that’s how little I understood the legislation. So you can’t let people take meat processed outside of a licenced facility off that property. It has to be consumed on the property. And we just flat out didn’t know that. And ignorance is no excuse.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: Tammi readily admits what she’d done was wrong… and so even though no one was sick from the salamis, she offered to have the meat recalled.

TAMMI JONAS: And she said, No, it’ll go in your favour that you’ve offered that, but you don’t need to do that. We just need to destroy the ones here because they’re a public health hazard.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: But to Tammi — this seemed like overkill… and kind of contradictory

TAMMI JONAS: And I said, but clearly, if they’re here and only we’re eating them, when these aren’t being sold, they’re just being eaten by us. Where’s the public health risk? And she said, well, she pointed to some interns we had, woofers actually we had at the time working with us said well you have other people here also. But we can eat these. Here is my understanding from what you’ve just said and the ones that have left the property are the actual public health hazard.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: The inspector ordered Tammi to destroy the salami still on her property.

TAMMI JONAS: And I said, you know, like this is a pig and a half worth of meat. So yeah, she made me I kind of I climbed the ladder and pulled the salamis down one by one and Stewart put them into a tub, and then she put what she called condemnation ink. It’s this bright blue poison. And on all of them, we said, you know, can we take them into our house? Could we feed them to our dogs? No, she wouldn’t even let us feed them to the dogs. Like she insisted that we throw them in the thing and that she destroyed them. That was pretty horrendous.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: For a small scale producer whose business was built on principles of sustainability… It felt like an incredible waste.

TAMMI JONAS: our whole life is about growing animals properly and taking their lives for nourishment for people. We never signed up to throw things away. We’re the opposite here. Everything is recycled, you know, all nutrient is captured and used in the system. And by putting poison on that meat in particular, we couldn’t even keep it as some form of nutrients like it now had to go to a rendering plant.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: Tammi says the inspector left her with a final word.

TAMMI JONAS: the inspector on that day when they came and destroyed all the salamis said There’s somebody in the industry who doesn’t like you. And we were like, what? Little old us? We just started what’s not to like.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: Tammi can’t be sure who the inspector was talking about… or why they might have it in for her and her business.

Tammi says she understands why people producing meat need to adhere to a set of established standards.

But in her view.. it just doesn’t make sense for the regulator to treat small scale producers the same way they treat the industry’s biggest players
TAMMI JONAS: sure, the risk in the contamination of a meat product is like in theory, the same. Like if you touch a hand with something that’s got listeria, salmonella, e coli, and then you take that ham and you eat that, the risk to use the same of getting sick. The differences in our systems, like literally one person manages this ham all the way from brining to smoking to packing to you. So one person has a quality eye across the entire system and you bought it from me. If you get sick, you know what made you sick and you actually know me. And you can tell me that my food made you sick. And if it was a batch of something, my batch had 30 little nuggets of ham in it, you know, like that I’m wrapping here today, not 3000, so I didn’t make 3000 people sick. So the scale of consequences for my system is lower, but also the risk of you getting sick from it, I think is it’s incontrovertibly lower when you have one person or two people managing the whole system

MAHMOOD FAZAL: In the past year, JBS, the world’s largest meat company, bought out Tammi’s local abattoir.

So she decided to set up her own abattoir on site and started a crowdfunding campaign.

But she’s anticipating huge hurdles from PrimeSafe.

In Victoria, audits are done four times more often than in NSW and Queensland.

Tammi says she and other small-scale producers are drowning under the weight of compliance work… designed for INDUSTRIAL meat producers…when there should be a distinction.

TAMMI JONAS: If you take KR of Castlemaine, right? You know, which is based on smallgoods up in Castlemaine. They’re under the same regulatory system we are. They get the same number of audits we do, and they process thousands and thousands of tonnes of meat. And, you know, we have eight sows. We process ten pigs a month and we get treated the same. So when they…. when they’re sort of wondering why is it so hard for small scale farmers, part of it is because the food system is so heavily industrialised and our regulatory system has tried to protect us from that industrial system. And then it has had the unintended effect of making small scale farmers who are not industrial, whose risks are much lower, and whose costs are generally higher and fall under the same system and be treated the same as though we were a factory.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: PrimeSafe sees it differently.

For the regulator, requirements should be the same for all licence applicants – because “the risk to human health remains the same – irrespective of size.”

When asked to comment on specific cases they declined, citing privacy reasons.

In an aeroplane hanger out the back of the Avalon airport.

There’s a bespoke beef producer who knows more about this than almost anyone else.

CHRIS BALAZS: This is what we affectionately called the RV or refrigerated vehicle…uhm… The bodies are hanging in there.

Chris Balazs is the CEO of provenir – a delivery service that provides grass-fed beef direct from paddock to plate.

CHRIS BALAZS: You’ll see. We put up pictures of all the farmers that we work with and need to make sure that the cows that we process as well.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: As he shows me around, I can tell that for Chris, and his company … things are going well.

But he tells me it hasn’t been easy.

And he says The hurdles he’s had to overcome to get here tell the story of a dysfunctional regulatory process in desperate need of an overhaul…

Chris’s first business was a premium beef supplier called Sage Farm.

CHRIS BALAZS: Anyone who’s had the pleasure to go to the farmer’s table and enjoy their home grown lamb or chicken or pig or cow would all say, you know, that it’s some of the best meat that they’ve ever eaten and I wanted to commercialise that. I wanted to take that to the general public.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: Chris tried to control every aspect of the supply chain to ensure the product was the best it could possibly be.

But there was one part of the business he just couldn’t get under his own roof.

CHRIS BALAZS: the piece of the puzzle that I never had was the processing bit.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: By processing — he means the abattoir — the actual slaughter of the animals.

CHRIS BALAZS: So yeah, I grew the animals, I…um… transported the animals, someone else did the processing, then I did the butchery and the retail from there. So there was always that piece of the puzzle for me that was missing and coming back to the control issues from there, that was always the bit that I struggled with.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: The problem was — getting the cows from his suppliers to the nearest abattoir was expensive, and the stress the cows experienced during transport wasn’t good for the meat.

Chris decided the answer to this was to build his own abattoir.

And to make it more accessible to small-scale farmers, he decided to make it mobile.

Chris was hopeful his idea would get a license because in 2015, the federal government published a report endorsing the idea.

But when he took his proposal to the Victorian regulators, he found it nearly impossible to get a meeting.

CHRIS BALAZS: So with Victoria, you know, we engage with the regulators. And it was hard to even get a response back. So we would ask that we want to have a meeting. We’ve got to build a mobile abattoir, we want to have it licenced in Victoria. And I think it just was one of those hard ones. I’m not I don’t know how to respond to this, you know, so we don’t respond.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: He says board members were against the idea from the very beginning.

CHRIS BALAZS: we had been trying to engage with the regulators. And I think it’s fair to say, and this is my opinion, they weren’t keen for a mobile abattoir. There were people on the board at that time who were openly saying that they thought a mobile abattoir, could bring the industry into disrepute. Um…Making comments about backyarders trying to produce meat for human consumption puts the whole industry at risk. So there was a lot of commentary out there from those in the status quo who were saying that…um…you know, it shouldn’t happen. It was a risk to the industry. Not a single one of those people actually picked up the phone and spoke to us.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: Chris says he had to secure a meeting with the Minister, just so he could argue his case with PrimeSafe.

But when he did… he says he was told that if a vehicle was used for transport it couldn’t also be used as an abattoir.

CHRIS BALAZS: Our feeling was definite that that interpretation was created to actually stop us even being able to apply for a licence. Cause once there’s an application for a licence, there’s requirements on the regulator to provide justification for their decisions there’s a right of repeal. All of those. So all of that was being taken away from us. At the first hurdle. So they just said, We can’t even licence you. You don’t even meet the definition of what an abattoir is for us to even consider whether we licence you or not.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: Chris began questioning the motives of the regulatory body in Victoria and leaders of the meat processing industry who were on the board.

CHRIS BALAZS: We just felt like this. This is…this is deliberately obstructionist from the …they don’t want to licence us. They don’t want us to exist. So they found a …a good way to do that.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: So he went over the border and approached the NSW Food regulator.

CHRIS BALAZS: So the process with the New South Wales regulators was simple. It was. It was very practical. We had the meetings with them. It was very simple. If you meet four, six, nine, six and we will come out and we will see how it operates and it will have to meet exactly the same requirements as any other abattoirs. If you meet that, no problems, you’ll get your licence. You can operate in New South Wales.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: So Chris took his mobile abattoir over to NSW, visited farms and slaughtered animals there before driving them back across the border for sale in Victoria.

And that was all perfectly legal.

CHRIS BALAZS: Transport it straight across the border. Absolutely no problems with that because I couldn’t there was no way that they could say that that wasn’t allowed.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: But he was determined to be able to operate in Victoria, so he went back to square one and began lobbying the minister.

If the law was unclear, he felt the law needed to change…

CHRIS BALAZS:We want to comply, we know we can comply, but if we can’t even get to that first step. Our only alternative is either you change the laws to make it categorically clear in the legislation that mobile abattoirs are not prohibited. Or we take it to VCAT.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: VCAT — that’s the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal

CHRIS BALAZS: So after a couple of months and several meetings, they said that they were going to draft some legislation to go into the parliament to change the laws, which was pretty exciting.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: Eventually — the legislation was amended and the definition of an abattoir was changed.

But when Chris’s company approached PrimeSafe for permission use their mobile abattoir in Victoria, they were still being stonewalled.

CHRIS BALAZS: So the laws have been changed. We’ve done the reviews. Let’s get this done. And it was again, further conversations between our chair and the chair of PrimeSafe to say, look, you know, there’s a business on the line here. We’ve done the hard yards. We’ve changed the laws. You know, the government’s behind it. Everybody else is behind it. Let’s just licence this. It’s fine in New South Wales. You know, this is starting to feel like it’s belligerent against us operating. We’ve done everything that we’ve had to do.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: In the end — PrimeSafe’s board approved the proposal to allow mobile abattoirs.
So after a five year administrative odyssey, Chris was eventually granted a licence.

For Chris — it was a frustrating demonstration of the inconsistencies between the states.
CHRIS BALAZS: We operate in New South Wales and we operate in Victoria. Categorically. Um… Victoria is more expensive, more onerous, regulatory. I don’t believe that we produce safer food in Victoria than New South Wales. I believe it’s identical.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: Chris says there’s no one on the board of the Victorian regulator PrimeSafe who is advocating for the interests of the small-scale farmer industry.

CHRIS BALAZS: That would be wonderful to have a representative on there as well. It’s going to be one voice amongst ten, but it opens the tent, it gets more opinions in there. creates potentially pathways to open up and diversify the meat industry. It’s incredibly concentrated.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: So concentrated that in 2015, and in response to complaints from small scale farmers, the then minister of agriculture Jaala Pulford asked PrimeSafe to undergo an independent performance review of the organisation.

The review addressed criticisms regarding PrimeSafe, including – “poor communication, excessive regulatory paperwork and over-regulation.”

The report was never made public.

PrimeSafe declined to participate in an interview or provide a copy of the review.

In a written statement, it says, “The Review made 24 recommendations to improve PrimeSafe’s communication, education and engagement, licensing, compliance and audits. 23 were accepted and have been implemented”

When I approached the Victorian government to find out why small scale producers weren’t represented on the board of the meat regulator, a spokesperson replied “The Minister for Agriculture appoints the Chair and Board for PrimeSafe according to the Meat Industry Act through an open and competitive process.”

They said, “Small-scale agricultural representatives are eligible and encouraged to apply to the Board when there are positions available.”

As no one from PrimeSafe would speak to me for this story, I tracked down a number of former board members who agreed to talk on background.

They say the regulation is key to minimising the reputational risk small-scale producers pose to our export markets.

Meat is Victoria’s largest value export.

If an outbreak were to occur it could jeopardise a three billion dollar industry.

At Milking Yard farm, Bruce is showing me the last of his chickens.

BRUCE BURTON: This is Roger. Um, Roger is sort of the mascot. A We’ve had him for a long time. He goes wherever he wants, does whatever he wants. It just flies over the fence. Nothing. Nothing will keep him in.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: He walks me down two pillars of high pine trees.

The birds are running around and sticking their beaks into the earth, looking for snacks.

BRUCE BURTON: Now, in the industry, these guys would be kept in cages, whereas we now, you know, the forest is is overgrown. It’s cool. There’s lots of food on the ground. They’re big pens. They roam. They do everything that, you know, roosters would do in nature.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: He says — even though his days of supplying meat birds to market are over…

He’d like to see the industry shaken up.

So whoever comes next… will find it easier than he did to make it work.

BRUCE BURTON: I really think that there’s a market out there. You know, we’ve proven that there’s a market for these types of high welfare heritage, breed pasture raised poultry. People want it. Sure, it’s only small. But we’ve got to create incentives for production and we’ve got to remove some of this scale, inappropriate regulations that dictate that it’s going to be hard for small guys like us to do these sort of things at small scale and still be profitable.

MAHMOOD FAZAL: Outside, between the long lines of pine trees, I ask Bruce if he will be keeping any of the birds.
BRUCE BURTON: Oh, of course. Yeah, we’ll keep a few. I mean, the forest, we’ll tidy it up, pull all of the sheds and everything out. And only a couple of years before we grew chickens, we had my son’s wedding in here. It was a beautiful setting, you know? Look down the aisle. There they were. That was a great spot. So. We’ll get back to that.

Background Briefing’s Sound Producers are Leila Shunnar and Ingrid Wagner.
Sound engineering by Russell Stapleton
Fact-checking by Benjamin Sveen
Supervising producer for this story is Alex Mann
Our executive producer is Fanou Filali
And I’m Mahmood Fazal
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