Carving into that Christmas turkey or sitting down to enjoy some chicken you picked up at the local supermarket, it’s easy to take for granted the science and technology involved in making sure your food is safe.
Since Airdrie-based Poultry Health Services Ltd. (PHS) started in 2002 as a one-man operation, it has grown to encompass several facilities in the city, with plans for a partnership with another in Ontario, and has become an innovator in diagnostics, consulting, auditing and other veterinary services for the industry.
“Our primary focus is the commercial poultry industry – the core of our business is diagnostic, but we’ve grown from there,” says Dr. Tom Inglis, managing partner and founder of PHS, who took his veterinary training at the University of Saskatchewan after an agriculture degree at University of Alberta. “Our first contract was in Edmonton, doing diagnostics for all the poultry producers in Alberta, and we started out in the government labs there. We [relocated] to Airdrie temporarily, to the Agriculture Centre, and we decided to stay – it was a great place to keep the business.”
Dr. Darko Mitevski joined the company in 2005 after having met Inglis at the University of Georgia. “We started growing the business in Airdrie to start to do more consulting services, expanding our diagnostics into other areas,” he says. “And we’ve started to form different partnerships because we saw opportunities beyond our core business.”
Inglis cites one example of this as the company’s custom vaccine program. “The idea being if you find a vaccine that works to protect animals or people from a disease, you can commercialize it,” he explains. “If you find a regional problem where there’s a new and emerging disease, you need to isolate those organisms, grow them up, kill them, and put them in a vaccine and then protect that population.” Most such autogenous vaccines are produced in the U.S., but Inglis says the plan is to start manufacturing locally (which is one reason, he says, why PHS recently expanded its Airdrie locations to include a 14,000-square-foot building on East Lake Avenue).
Inglis says the complexity of food safety work has evolved.
The term used now is sustainability, looking at everything from welfare and carbon footprinting, to diet,” he says, adding much of the focus is on preventing illness.
“You get into that integrated health management … there’s been a real shift from diagnose and treat to prevention and surveillance.” PHS also performs third-party auditing as organic/non-antibiotic poultry production has taken off.
The company also works with students from the universities of Calgary and Alberta, with U of C students rotating through PHS facilities. “Much of our DNA is in teaching,” says Inglis.
The influence of PHS has grown beyond Alberta, working with producers in Germany and Brazil, and Inglis says they’re building a diagnostic facility in Stratford, Ont., with an associate establishing a business there.
Mitevski says the pride of doing good work comes from seeing products in the stores. “Every day, someone can walk into Superstore, Sobeys, Costco, and there’s always a fresh chicken, turkey, eggs. Walking through the store, I recognize brands and it’s nice to stand behind them,” he says. “To see yourself as a small part of it … is rewarding, in a sense.”
Beyond helping keep our food safe, PHS is a supporter of local causes, such as Airdrie Food Bank. The company has also donated space to the Airdrie Lioness Club for its Christmas hampers.
“Everyone who joins the team has something they believe in; Airdrie is our home,” says Inglis.