Federal committee ponders food-processing capacity

Opposition members say COVID response was underfunded

Opposition members of the Commons Agriculture Committee are questioning if government funding for food processors fighting COVID was enough.

Glacier FarmMedia – The federal committee on agriculture and agri-food has begun its study into Canada’s processing capacity.

During a Nov. 19 meeting, Conservative Party of Canada Agriculture Critic Lianne Rood joined her opposition colleagues in questioning the federal government’s decision to offer the sector $77.5 million in support, when some industry estimates suggest roughly $800 million is needed.

First announced in May, the federal government offered $77.5 million through the Emergency Processing Fund to help companies buy reusable personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitation stations and protective barriers, as well as measures to enable social distancing and additional training.

Frédéric Seppey, an assistant deputy minister with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) said the decision to launch the program was “taken by the government and therefore this is a question of policy, which as a public servant I cannot provide an answer to.”

Later, after Bloc Québécois MP Yves Perron said “it doesn’t seem like very much as an amount,” Seppey said the program was very popular “and as a result there was very little money left in it.”

“For the time being there is no plan to increase the budget envelope for that at the moment,” said Seppey.

Representatives from Food and Beverage Canada previously estimated the cost of adapting to accommodate workers during the pandemic would be around $800 million.

At a committee meeting in May dedicated to reviewing the impact of COVID-19 on the sector, Food and Beverage Canada executive director Kathleen Sullivan said the pandemic had created a huge problem for the industry and requires significant capital investment.

“We are facing a new normal of extraordinary cost pressures that we need to address somehow either by means of government support or by food price increases,” she said. “We didn’t build our food plants to accommodate social distancing, we built them to accommodate food safety.”

The Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council estimated more than $87 million was spent just in March and April to protect workers.

Carla Ventin, senior vice-president of Food, Health and Consumer Products of Canada, told committee members the $77.5 million would fall short of properly supporting the industry.

“We are really concerned that the $77.5 million will not even cover the costs already incurred by the primary meat processors,” said Ventin.

Much of the discussion on the 19th focused on whether or not Canada had enough food-processing capacity, and whether or not it was diversified enough.

When those questions were posed to Seppey, he said Canada is a major agricultural producer with high processing capacity, which varies from sector to sector, but that, “It’s really up to market forces to determine what should happen, where there should be investments in order to add processing capacity.”

The committee will continue its study in the coming weeks.

About the author

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D.C. Fraser

D.C. Fraser is Glacier FarmMedia’s Ottawa-based reporter. Growing up mostly in Alberta, Fraser also lived in Saskatchewan for ten years where he covered politics, including a stint teaching at the University of Regina’s School of Journalism. He is an avid fan of the outdoors and a pretty good beer league hockey player. His passion for agriculture and agri-food policy comes naturally: Six consecutive generations of his family have worked in the industry.

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