The changes are anticipated as Canada’s major factories struggle with changing demand and adapting to the impacts of COVID-19, the federal Minister of Agriculture said on Wednesday.
“It may be that the variety of products we find on our shelves is a little different for a while. It’s a possibility, “said Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, at a press conference.
“But I don’t care that we won’t have enough food. We could see some differences in the variety, and maybe also in the prices. “
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Several meat processors in Canada and the United States have suspended or slowed down operations in recent weeks due to outbreaks among staff or due to physical measures to prevent the virus from spreading.
In Calgary, Cargill Meat Solutions recently announced that it will suspend its second shift. Her union has reported dozens of COVID-19 cases at the plant and has called for a two-week full shutdown with full compensation for its 2,000 workers. The plant accounts for more than a third of Canada’s beef processing capacity.
In northeast Montreal, an Olymel pork factory reopens “slowly” after a virus epidemic forced the shutdown for two weeks. Olymel is the largest pork processor and exporter in Canada.
The Yamachiche plant in Quebec and its counterpart in Alberta normally handle approximately 187,000 hogs per week in total, according to spokesman Richard Vigneault. In Yamachiche, before the pandemic, there were approximately 28,000 pigs slaughtered weekly.
This production is down because of COVID-19, he said, however, he couldn’t say exactly how much.
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Bibeau said adapting to the new measures recommended by public health has been a challenge in the agricultural industry. The distance to certain workstations in meat processing plants like Olymel “cannot be respected,” the company said in a press release.
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These changes have further reduced production capacity. With new protocols focused on worker safety, hundreds of employees work in two shifts.
Vigneault said the Yamachiche plant generally employs approximately 1,000 people working on three different daily shifts. One of these changes is to sterilize the plant, which tends to happen overnight.
He said that only about 450 employees had returned to work by April 15, alternating two shifts.
Addition of additional inspectors
Bibeau acknowledged the tough decisions factories made during the pandemic, but said she was “confident” that the system was strong enough to withstand a “short period of disruption”.
“We produce a lot more than we eat in Canada, but we are going through a difficult time,” she said. “I think our system is strong enough and strong enough to adapt, but these days it has been particularly difficult.”
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As part of the federal government’s goal to keep the supply moving, millions of new farmers’ funding was announced this week. Bibeau said part of the money will be used to work with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to increase the number of inspectors available to maintain safety protocols and keep factories in operation.
It had no breakdown of the funding required to achieve this goal, nor the exact number of additional inspectors that would be added and deployed.
“They work in different factories and could eventually get sick. We know that demand is also increasing because working hours may be longer to compensate for a lower production level, “she said, adding that demand could fluctuate from region to region.
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“We want to add enough inspectors and enough stability to make sure that if there is a slowdown in production, it would not be because the CFIA has not been able to keep up with demand.”
Bibeau said it is in talks with its provincial counterparts, the CFIA and some retailers on “different ways to facilitate the flow of products across the country.”
She said the food sector is a priority for the federal government during COVID-19.
Price and variety may change with closures
While beef, pork and even production sectors may be “severely affected” in the coming months due to COVID-19, Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph, is not convinced that the crisis is based on disrupted supply chains. . He said unemployment figures across the country are more likely to blame.
“It’s the loss of income, it’s the 300% increase in food bank usage that has been reported in the past 10 days. I think there is a COVID-19 food security problem and a crisis that is emerging, but it is not one that worries people because of the images of empty grocery shelves, “he said. .
Fraser said COVID-19 has revealed a number of “vulnerabilities” in the food system. He said prices could go up and shelves could empty if more factories were forced to close – especially those in the United States.
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Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor, told Reuters on Sunday that it is closing a pork plant that accounts for about four to five percent of US production indefinitely.
He warned that factory closings were pushing the United States “dangerously close to the edge” in the supply of meat for grocers.
“There is no reason for consumers to panic,” said Fraser. “As a result, we are not facing a massive food security crisis, but I don’t think it will be as easy or as cheap to buy beef and pork in the next month or two as this has always been the case. “
To alleviate some uncertainty, the government is considering new “incentives” for Canadians to join the food industry.
Bibeau recognized that it would not be easy to bring people in, but that it could be beneficial for both parties. She said that the government is looking for ways to allow Canadians to work in the industry without losing employment insurance benefits.
“We know we currently have a large number of unemployed Canadians,” she told reporters. “We are looking for ways for Canadians to work in the food industry, on farms, in processing plants. It’s a big challenge for the entire supply chain right now. This is something we are looking at, but too early to tell you how we are going to do it. ”
– with files from The Canadian Press, Reuters and Global News ’David Akin
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