Meat packer Olymel plans to temporarily close its hog slaughter and pork processing plant at Red Deer, Alta., winding down that facility’s operations starting this week against a rapidly spreading COVID-19 outbreak among workers.
The plant, one of Canada’s largest by slaughter capacity at over 45,000 hogs per week, has notified its hog suppliers and “suspended all pending deliveries until further notice,” Olymel said Monday in a release.
Olymel management “believes that the conditions are no longer assembled to continue normal operations in a safe and efficient manner” at the plant, the company said.
Management have drawn up “an orderly temporary closing plan for an indefinite period” and “over the next few days” will “mobilize the staff necessary to cease operations and complete the facility closure as soon as possible.”
Several media outlets in Alberta on Monday reported 192 “active” cases of COVID-19 out of 326 employees who have tested positive, up from 168 positive cases as of Feb. 6.
The plant’s case count includes one death, a 35-year-old employee who CBC identified Monday as Darwin Doloque, found dead at his home Jan. 28.
Olymel, the meat packing arm of ag co-operative giant Sollio, said Monday it will “follow up with all employees to ensure their quarantine period is being respected and will strongly encourage all staff to get tested before returning to work.”
The company said it will also continue to investigate “what may have caused such a large outbreak of COVID-19 cases since Jan. 20.”
United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 401, the union representing employees at the plant, on Monday hailed the company’s decision as “a major victory for Olymel workers who have consistently expressed fear for their safety and a desire to see the plant close on a temporary basis.”
“I told anyone who would listen that it was impossible to look at what was happening at Olymel and conclude that this outbreak was under control and that the plant was a safe workplace,” UFCW 401 president Thomas Hesse said in a separate release Monday. “We were no longer faced with a choice. The plant had to close. Period.”
Hesse, in a letter Saturday to Olymel plant manager Rob Ackerblade, said the company “cannot let the arrogance of the production imperative override the very valid sentiments of real human beings. People must be put ahead of pigs.”
In that letter, Hesse quoted a Feb. 11 risk assessment by provincial health officials stating “around one in five workers at the plant may be infected and spreading the virus.”
“This need not be another Cargill,” Hesse wrote in Saturday’s letter, referring to the Cargill cattle slaughter and beef packing plant at High River, Alta., at which over 950 workers tested positive during 2020, including two who died.
“We can bring comfort to good people who are terrified. We can work to restore Alberta’s confidence in this industry. No one else needs to suffer with this terrible disease. No one else needs to die.”
Heather Sweet, the agriculture critic for the provincial opposition New Democrats, said Feb. 7 on Twitter she “support(s) the call for a pause at the plant. We also need to support our food supply chain. Why hasn’t the government developed policy to prevent these outbreaks?” — Glacier FarmMedia Network