Merry Dairy told to shut its wholesale operations

“I’m familiar with the Milk Act, but I thought we were compliant.”

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The Hintonburg business The Merry Dairy has been subjected to an ice-cream crackdown.

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After an officer from Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs visited Thursday to enforce the province’s Milk Act, the business had to immediately suspend wholesale operations distributing its much-loved ice cream to more than a dozen Ottawa retailers.

“We’re losing a stream of revenue, and it was a good stream,” Merry Dairy owner Marlene Haley said Friday.

“But the disappointment was in the urgency of it, as in, ‘As of today, you must stop’ … The suddenness and the extreme measure seem to be disproportionate to what we were doing.”

Haley was to spend Friday afternoon loading a cooler in her van with scores of pints of ice cream recouped from stores from New Edinburgh to Kanata. Had she not complied, her business would have faced fines of $2,000 a day, according to the Milk Act.

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While Haley’s business is inspected by municipal food safety inspectors, it is not a licensed dairy plant, as the Milk Act requires of wholesalers. The provincial officer visited the Merry Dairy apparently after being informed the business was selling wholesale.

As part of the high food safety standards our province has, businesses that process and distribute milk products, including for wholesale purposes, are required to obtain a license under the Milk Act to ensure they meet appropriate standards,” Jack Sullivan, OMAFRA’s director of issues , media relations and strategy, said in a written statement:

Haley said the Merry Dairy received its custom mix from a licensed dairy each week, and it then adds to the mix to make its ice creams. It is allowed to sell its ice cream at its store and from its ice cream trucks.

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“I’m familiar with the Milk Act, but I thought we were compliant,” she said.

Haley posted on Twitter about the ministry’s action on Thursday night, prompting Ottawa politicians to rally behind her business.

“Surely a reasonable compromise can be made to allow them to continue to sell ice cream,” Mayor Jim Watson tweeted Friday. He asked Premier Doug Ford to help the Merry Dairy. Liberal MP Yasir Naqvi and NDP MPP Joel Harden, who both represent Ottawa Centre, also tweeted support for the business.

The Merry Dairy only began wholesaling after retailers reached out to it during the pandemic, saying they wanted to stock its ice cream, Haley said.

“Small businesses wanted to diversify. They were adding new local products,” she said. “Customers were really happy. People want local. They love the idea that they know where the ice cream comes from.

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“We filled that need during COVID,” Haley said. “We would never have grown our wholesale (business) so quickly, except there was a need during the pandemic.”

Haley said it was too early to say how the lost wholesale revenue would affect her business. That income “definitely keeps an extra person employed, and it keeps us open in the winter and the slower months,” she said.

Haley said she had to sign a form admitting the Merry Dairy was not in compliance with the Milk Act.

“We know there are some that may say, ‘Too bad, so sad, that’s the law,’” she tweeted. “But we are bewildered as to the purpose of the law and its application, as it seems like the outcomes it creates benefits [sic] the big players at the expense of the little ones.

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“Canada’s dairy regime couldn’t be more punitive to small businesses in terms of the interests it serves and how it protects those interests,” Haley tweeted.

In an interview, Haley said the Milk Act should be amended “to recognize the times,” in which smaller businesses such as hers can be successful local wholesalers.

Sullivan said the ministry was offering The Merry Dairy “assistance and support in order for them to become a licensed dairy plant, compliant with all health and safety standards under the Act, which would allow them to resume wholesale distribution.”

Haley said the provincial officer gave her written material that had to do with becoming a licensed dairy plant. However, the Merry Dairy is located in a 100-year-old building and becoming a plant would likely be very costly, Haley said. A new facility might be needed, she tweeted.

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Another highly Ottawa regarded ice-cream business, Pascale’s All-Natural Ice Cream, was subjected to similar provincial scrutiny and enforcement in recent years.

According to a July 2021 story in Edible Ottawa magazine, Pascale’s, which takes its name from its owner, Pascale Berthiaume, sold high-end ice cream to customers from its Gladstone Avenue shop and to wholesale clients including Ottawa restaurants. But in March 2019 the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs shut down her business.

Berthiaume, who could not be reached for comment, later summarized selling her ice cream, but via different channels. According to the business’s website, it shut its takeout window at the end of 2020. Now, Pascale’s ice cream is available at pop-up events, through online sales and at several Ottawa stores.

In response to Merry Dairy’s situation, Berthiaume tweeted: “Same story, three years later!!! Things need to change.”

phum@postmedia.com

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