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Country goodness

Jason Unrau
Northern News Services

Inuvik (July 15/05) - We've all heard about the health benefits of eating country food.

But unless people can dedicate their time to harvesting it or know somebody who does and who can also afford to spare some of the bounty, Northerners are left with what they can buy from their local grocer.

Delta Meat and Sausage owner Jeff Otto with his country food products, available at Arctic Foods in Inuvik. - Jason Unrau/NNSL photo

In Inuvik, imported beef, chicken and seafood are the main meat choices at the grocery stores.

While these outlets do stock varying amounts and kinds of country food, there are several factors at play as to why meat that's walking around pretty much in our backyards takes a back seat to imported meat at the grocery store.

Why buy it

Ed Lavoie, owner of Arctic Foods, says he'd like to see more country food on his shelves but availability, combined with a limited market, doesn't make it a viable commercial product.

"It's not the locals who are asking for it," he said.

"Often we have tourists coming in wanting caribou or muskox or people (working here) who go home for a visit and are looking for something for their families."

Murray Arsenault, manager of the Community Economic Division for the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation - which owns Stanton's - has similar concerns with respect to the demand for country food.

"Generally, we've tried to have more of a presence in the local market," he said. "But the results weren't satisfactory from a demand standpoint."

Stanton's offers caribou, muskox and Arctic char for sale, the widest country food selection of the three primary grocers in town, although the store is currently out of caribou and muskox.

In terms of price, a 1 kg muskox hip roast sells for $14 while its beef equivalent, a 1 kg sirloin tip, retails for $9.50.

Northmart's country food selections are limited to Arctic char and, according to grocery manager Jeff Sullivan, "muskox and caribou jerky and some canned stuff once in a while."

Part of the problem is offering meat that has been federally inspected, not to mention overall availability and freshness of the product, all of which make it difficult to maintain country food on the shelves of the Northmart store.

Each season Arsenault oversees the annual muskox harvest in Sachs Harbour - the bulk of the meat they harvest is sold through a distributor in Vancouver, which requires a federal stamp of approval. During the slaughter, a federal inspector is on hand to witness the stunning, quartering and freezing of the muskox product.

In order to ensure the product is federally approved - necessary if the meat is to be sold outside the NWT - samples must be tested at a lab in Calgary. "We're working at remedying that situation by doing more territorial approval (for meat to be sold at Stanton's)," he said, adding that muskox is more expensive than beef, due to the fact it has to travel south before returning North to be put on Stanton's shelves.

Government regulations

For the past three years, Jeff Otto, proprietor of Delta Meat and Sausage, which is a processor of country foods in town, has worked to get his products certified for consumer consumption.

With the goal of one day having federal certification, Otto has received the NWT's stamp of approval and is retailing country foods from a storefront at the Inuvik Airport and on consignment at Arctic Foods.

As well, Otto's product was used to feed Prime Minister Paul Martin during his visit to Inuvik last year.

"He's met the standards for (territorial) certification and we're helping him to prepare for federal certification," said NWT Environmental Health Officer Bob Mellett. These standards include ensuring temperatures in the processing facility are between 1C and 4 C to limit bacterial contamination.

Arsenault estimated it would cost between $2 million and $3 million to build a meat processing facility in Sachs.

Otto, who gets his caribou meat from Gwich'in hunters, muskox from the annual harvest in Sachs Harbour and bison and elk from outside the territory, said he's invested about $160,000 towards arriving at this stage in his business and is determined to get federal recognition. He estimated it would cost about $500,000 for a meat processing plant in Inuvik.

"I wouldn't say it's been difficult, but it has been extremely costly to get this far," he said.