Meat processors systemic weak spot

Canada has its first meat-processing closures due to COVID-19. Now the sector and government are looking to buffer the risk

[UPDATED: April 13, 2020] Meat packers have enjoyed sky-high demand as consumers concerned over COVID-19 wipe out grocery shelves, but industry is concerned that the supply chain might hit a bottleneck as plant staff fall ill.

Packer margins and meat demand shot up during the final weeks of March, with many packers considering extended hours and wage increases. Both Cargill and Maple Leaf have announced wage bumps for plant workers in light of the pandemic.

The livestock sector heard some rumblings of trouble, however, in the last week of March.

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On March 29, Quebec hog processor Olymel announced that it would be closing its kill and cut facility in Yamachiche, Que., for two weeks, following nine cases of COVID-19 confirmed among staff.

Why it matters: The prospect of COVID-19 getting into processing plants might be one of the biggest threats to the meat supply chain, should plants be forced to close due to staff getting sick.

The decision, “was made partly to protect the workers, and partly to limit community transmission,” according to a statement released by the company.

About 1,000 staff were impacted by the closure and the company has asked anyone who worked at the plant since March 12 to self-isolate, although the company maintains the shutdown will not hinder product movement to local markets.

“Closing this important part of the food supply chain, even temporarily, is a challenge,” a company statement read. “Olymel will follow up with its suppliers, particularly the hog farmers who supply the plant, and make the necessary decisions.”

Two days later, Reuters reported that a beef-packing plant in Alberta had also temporarily closed.

Reuters reported that a staff member of Harmony Beef had tested positive for COVID-19, although they hadn’t been at work for several days prior to the closure. Reuters reported that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) had instructed inspectors to stay home, leaving the plant without the needed oversight to operate.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) has since disputed that claim, saying that the closure was short lived, was done in light of input from health authorities and was meant to give the company time to get safety procedures in place for staff to return to work.

*The poultry industry got similarly bad news April 8, after Maple Leaf announced that it would be closing its plant in Brampton, Ont. The company reported three cases of COVID-19 among plant staff at the time, as well as one case at their facility in Hamilton, Ont.

“Our first priority is to keep our people safe so the decision was made to shut down the facility, pending a full risk assessment,” a statement on the company’s website read. “While we complete the investigation, we are deep cleaning the plant including common areas and offices. Our goal is to complete the investigation and the deep cleaning as quickly as reasonably possible. We will not begin operating again until we are confident that it is safe to return to work.”

A rash of closures in the U.S. has done little to stem concern. On April 6, Reuters reported that meat packing giant Tyson Foods was losing a major packing plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, although the company maintained that hogs bound for the plant were being re-routed to other facilities. That closure came after more than two-dozen employees tested positive for COVID-19. That was followed by news that another packer, JBS, was shutting a Pennsylvania beef plant until April 16. Cargill has also shut down their 900-staff meat plant in Hazleton, Pennsylvania until further notice, Reuters reported April 7.

Most recently, on April 12 pork-processing titan Smithfield Foods announced that it would be closing its plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, indefinitely. The company initially said the 3,700-staff plant would be closed temporarily for cleaning, after local media reported that over 80 cases of COVID-19 had been linked to the plant. According to an April 12 report by Reuters, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem now says that 238 Smithfield Foods employees have now fallen ill.

‘Period of adaptation’

Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said the meat sector is facing, “a period of adaptation,” as plants introduce worker health protocols.

Plants that do not have those protocols in place when workers get sick must close while those adaptations are made, she said.

“These new procedures, protocols, that have to be put in place might also have an impact on the level of productivity… The plants might have to operate longer hours to compensate. So, it’s definitely a challenge,” she said.

Plants are currently working with their provincial health authorities to put the needed measures in place, she said.

CFIA refocuses

The CFIA has also reprioritized its activities, Bibeau said.

On March 23, the CFIA announced it would be suspending low-risk activities, “that do not immediately impact the production of safe food for Canadians in order to prioritize critically important services during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

Animal disease tracking and export duties will not be impacted, Bibeau said, although things like labelling might be considered low priority and get less attention.

Food safety investigations, import inspection, emergency management and associated lab work will also be considered high priority, the CFIA says.

Governments are also looking to fill out the ranks of inspectors in an effort to keep processing on track. The province of Alberta and the CFIA have signed an agreement allowing provincial meat inspectors to receive training and fill in at high-priority processing sites in that province, it was announced April 1.

At the same time, Bibeau said, the federal government is also calling on retired inspectors to take up their duties again.

“We are all getting organized to have more staff available, including more inspectors available to face this new reality,” she said. “First we have to make sure our employees are in good health and that we put in place the right measures to protect all of them so that the processing can proceed as normally as it could be right now.”

Plants must be looking to protect CFIA employees along with their own regular plant staff in their procedures, Bibeau said, noting that some CFIA staff have also become ill.

Local impacts

**Janet Riley, vice-president of communications and public affairs with Maple Leaf Foods, says there has been, “minimal disruption,” to operations at their Brandon hog facility.

The company has previously said it is changing work procedures for social distance, staggering break times and adding more break room space to limit contact in the workplace.

“Fortunately, we operate in a sanitary manner and we routinely wear a variety of plant-specific personal protective equipment that can include masks, gloves, frocks and smocks,” Riley said. “We also are accustomed to washing our hands at frequent intervals throughout the day and when we move from one area of a plant to the next. These practices have served us well in keeping our teams healthy in the workplace, and we have taken additional steps in the wake of the pandemic.”

The company will be introducing daily temperature checks for anyone coming on site, on top of existing screening, she said.

The Manitoba Chicken Producers, Granny’s and HyLife Foods were contacted for this article, but could not be reached for comment as of press time.

UPDATE: *The article added a mention that some Maple Leaf workers had tested positive for COVID-19 and further industry impacts. **The article removed a mention of no staff at Maple Leaf Foods testing positive for COVID-19.

About the author

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Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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