One of Canada’s largest slaughterhouses shuts down after hundreds of people connected to the facility were infected with the new coronavirus and one of them died from COVID-19, marking the first shutdown of the country’s food supply chain.
Cargill Ltd. announced Monday the temporary closure of its meat processing plant in High River, Alberta. The facility produces about 40% of processed western Canadian beef and is a key part of the province’s agricultural industry. Alberta linked 484 cases of COVID-19 to this plant and dozens more in a competing facility.
The president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture has said the closure is “devastating” to the country’s food system, which is already under severe strain in the middle of the pandemic. ” [The supply chain] normally works with tickling and no one has to think about it, “said Mary Robinson. “These systems are so efficient and so well managed, and as soon as we start clearing, we will have problems.”
The High River plant is one of several slaughterhouses in North America to close or slow down its assembly lines because workers, working side by side, have tested positive for the new coronavirus. JBS Canada, one of the largest beef companies in the country, is also affected by the pandemic. To date, 67 people linked to JBS operations in Brooks, Alberta, have contracted COVID-19, according to the province. JBS did not return a message requesting a comment.
The idling of the High River facility, even temporarily, threatens to cause ripple effects along the food supply chain, both forward and backward. Consumers may see declining stocks and higher prices at grocery stores, and farmers face the prospect of financial difficulties. If producers cannot find a processor to take their animals when they are ready to be placed on the market, they incur higher feed and labor costs. Some industry groups are warning that a backlog of live animals on farms could also prompt producers to make tough decisions about the slaughter of some of their cattle.
Jon Nash, head of Cargill’s North American protein division, said the company has started the process of temporarily shutting down the High River facility. “We are working with farmers and ranchers, our customers and our employees to provide food during this time of crisis and keep the markets moving,” he said in a statement.
Cargill, a global agricultural company headquartered in Minnesota, said the High River plant will process approximately three million meals with products currently in the plant to avoid food waste. The company did not provide details on the length of the closure. The facility employs 2,000 people who typically process 4,500 head of cattle each day; many workers are temporary foreign workers and immigrants linked to the city’s Filipino community.
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Meat processors have taken steps to create space between workers, including erecting individual stalls in cafeterias, but most of the workers work in tight premises. The work is therefore ripe for the new coronavirus, which is causing the spread of COVID-19. The union urged Cargill to suspend operations to protect workers.
“It’s high time,” said Thomas Hesse, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, noting that there were 38 factory-related COVID-19 cases on Easter Sunday .
The head of the Agriculture Union, representing federal food inspectors, said he sent two letters last week to federal ministers asking them to implement consistent protocols in all processing plants that have sick employees. Fabian Murphy said the union wanted the facilities to close immediately for 14 days after an employee tested positive for the virus. He also pleads for inspectors and workers to receive personal protective equipment. (Inspectors must be on site during slaughter activities.)
” The [Canadian Food Inspection Agency] leaves it to factories to determine whether or not they can operate safely, ”said Murphy. “I don’t think it’s the right call. … I think the government could have intervened earlier and taken decisive action. The CFIA did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Monday evening.
Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, said that carpooling and the spread of the coronavirus in households where infected people are unable to isolate themselves from others have played a significant role in the High River epidemic. Many people linked to factories processing COVID-19 were exposed to the virus before the facilities implemented security measures, she said.
“We will continue to see new cases linked to this epidemic in the coming days,” said Dr. Hinshaw.
The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, which represents 63,000 beef farms and feedlots, said Cargill was in touch on Monday to announce that the plant would be closed for a “short time.” Dennis Laycraft, the association’s executive vice president, said that while he hopes the slaughterhouse will reopen soon, farmers must be prepared for the possibility that the plant may remain closed for weeks. And every week, he says, adds about 25,000 cattle to the backlog of Canadian farms.
“Every sector of the industry is affected,” he said in a virtual town hall on Monday. “We are reaching out, literally as we speak, to the government to underscore the urgency of moving forward on a number of measures that we have presented in recent weeks.”
The association urges Ottawa to implement a so-called fallow program, which would allow farmers to keep their livestock longer and feed the animals on a high-forage maintenance diet instead of the more caloric growth which generally precedes slaughter. The program would be reminiscent of the one used during the BSE crisis of the early 2000s, when the capacity of slaughterhouses was reduced.
Without a layaway plan to slow the supply chain, producers could face half a billion dollars in market losses before the end of June, said Laycraft.
The decrease in processing capacity may also become evident to consumers when they visit their local grocery store. Robinson said that even if there is meat in stock that can be used in the short term, these stocks will not be kept indefinitely. “The storm is not tomorrow,” she said. “The impact of these decisions made today will be felt in the medium and long term.”
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