Inspectors’ union calls for closure of third Alberta meat processing plant due to COVID-19 outbreak

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A third Alberta meat processing plant sees a spike in COVID-19 cases, prompting the federal union of food inspectors to call for the plant’s closure.

On Tuesday, Alberta Health connected 34 cases of coronavirus to Harmony Beef in Balzac, just north of Calgary.

The first case at the plant more than a month ago prompted the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to temporarily withdraw its inspectors from Harmony Beef due to safety concerns.

Now, with nearly three dozen cases linked to this epidemic, the factory remains open.

The union representing these inspectors calls for the immediate closure of Harmony Beef – and all other meat processing facilities with infected employees.

Only a closure will completely stop the spread of COVID-19 among workers and their families, said Fabian Murphy, president of the Agriculture Union, which represents thousands of inspectors.

“Our position is that whenever you have an outbreak like this, you have to shut down the plant. You have to master this, “said Murphy from Ottawa.

“We have to put the health and safety of the workers working in these factories first here. This must be the top priority – people’s lives. “

Major outbreaks, worker death

Alberta is facing two more COVID-19 outbreaks in meat processing plants, one at JBS in Brooks and the other outside High River in Cargill.

The Cargill epidemic – with nearly 1,000 related cases, including one worker who died from the disease – is considered the single largest site outbreak in North America. The plant reopened on Monday after a temporary closure.

CBC News asked Harmony Beef and Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro to comment.

Alberta’s meat factories supply much of the beef sold in Canada. Many facility workers have fallen ill with COVID-19 in recent weeks. (Bryan Eneas / CBC)

Murphy said he spoke to Alberta food inspectors who expressed concern about the proximity of workers to work.

He said he doesn’t want Harmony to become a third major outbreak and that he would like the closings to last long enough for workers to go past the 14-day cycle when they could start showing symptoms.

“You need to give people time to go through the incubation period to make sure they are not positive for COVID-19 before they return to this work site,” said Murphy.

Letter to the Prime Minister

Before news of the increase in Harmony beef cases, Murphy and the Agriculture Union wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and various federal ministers asking them to intervene to shut down the meat plants, which are regulated by the federal government, for 14 days after their first case. found and set national standards on how plants should respond to COVID-19.

“It is not a consistent approach in Alberta and it is not a consistent approach across the country,” said Murphy. “I think there is a lot of political pressure to keep these factories open. “

Trudeau announced a food plant assistance program on Tuesday. He said the funds could be used by companies to buy personal protective equipment. Officials from the Federal Department of Agriculture have stressed that worker safety is a provincial responsibility.

WATCH | Prime Minister on the role of the federal government in the health and safety of workers in meat plants:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answers questions from CBC’s Tom Parry about why it is up to the federal government to ensure that international meat packaging companies keep their workers safe. 1:20

The CFIA has food inspectors stationed at each federally regulated meat processing plant in the country. Businesses cannot operate without the presence of inspectors.

The CFIA withdrew its inspectors from Harmony Beef on March 27 after the first case of COVID-19 was reported, the agency said in a statement. Harmony then closed the factory.

On the same day, Alberta occupational health and safety officials conducted a “live virtual inspection” of the facility, said a spokesperson for the Ministry of Labor. The company was then asked to provide workers with COVID-19 safety documents.

The factory reopened on March 31.

Alberta Health Services last inspected Harmony beef on April 28. The CFIA said its staff were accompanying AHS staff for the site visit. No agency explained what the inspectors found.

AHS also said it had established a task force in the Calgary area to process COVID-19 in meat packaging facilities.

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