Photo: The Canadian Press
Cows and their calves graze in a pasture on a farm near Cremona, Alberta.
Consolidation of beef processing plants in Alberta has kept meat prices affordable in Canada, but has also made the industry vulnerable to disease outbreaks, according to a new report.
The University of Calgary School of Public Policy study released Wednesday warned that beef production shutdowns similar to what happened at the start of the pandemic could “easily happen again.”
COVID-19 rocked the beef industry and raised awareness for consolidation after coronavirus outbreaks forced the temporary closure of several meat packing plants last spring, pushing up retail prices and lowering livestock prices.
About 70 percent of Canada’s beef production is located in just two plants in Alberta.
The Simpson Center for Agricultural and Food Innovation study said that creating more small-scale facilities scattered across the country would better insulate the food industry from a future pandemic.
Yet he also said that “mega” slaughterhouses and meat packing plants benefit from economies of scale that keep prices lower for consumers.
“There’s a lot of trade-offs with these very large processing facilities,” said Jared Carlberg, author of the report and professor of agribusiness and agricultural economics at the University of Manitoba.
“People like to buy cheap things, including food,” he said in an interview. “People have become accustomed to spending a fairly small share of their income on food and the industrialization of food production and processing has allowed that to happen. ”
Yet while the consolidation of meat processing has kept retail prices affordable, it also makes the industry more vulnerable to crises, Carlberg said.
“The downside is that when we have such a disruption and we have to shut down a very large factory, it has a much more significant impact on food safety on the consumer and producer side,” he said.
The study suggested that one solution could be to increase the mechanization of beef production, which would reduce the risk of an epidemic by reducing the number of workers in the facilities.
Currently, the work performed at food processing facilities often involves a large number of employees working side-by-side, according to the report.
“Having workers nearby provides ideal conditions for the disease to spread,” the study says. “There is a clear potential for a disease to spread rapidly, leading to an interruption in food production or even the complete shutdown of a critical facility. ”
Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a case study on the risks associated with modern ‘mega-scale’ treatment facilities.
For example, Cargill was forced to close its beef processing plant in High River, Alta., After an outbreak of COVID-19.
Likewise, while the JBS beef processing plant in Brooks, Alta., Has not closed, it has been forced to cut production from two daily shifts to one, according to the report.
According to the report, a safer factory design that allows physical remoteness and increased mechanization could reduce reliance on large numbers of workers and create a better environment for those who remain.
While the changes would come with the short-term cost of lost jobs and new capital investments, the report said this would ensure a continued supply of safe and affordable food.