Pork sector looks for coronavirus answers

COVID-19: The pork sector’s labour- and human-intensive production system has added an extra challenge to maintaining the value chain

Andrew Dickson has had a busy few days.

The general manager for the Manitoba Pork Council, Dickson has been on the phone, both dealing with his own organization’s steps towards social distancing and trying to deal with the looming concerns of the pork industry in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For an industry like the pork sector, whose barns regularly employ outside staff and is reliant on both the Canada-U.S. border for live export and vertically integrated into two large processors in province, those concerns loom large.

The sector has welcomed reassurances that travel restrictions along the Canada-U.S. border will not impact trade. On March 18, the Canadian and U.S. governments announced they would be suspending non-essential travel across the border.

The Canadian government has also asked any returning international travellers to self-isolate for 14 days, but has exempted truck drivers in an effort to keep trade flowing.

Pork operations would have, “crashed to a halt,” without that exemption, according to Dickson.

Andrew Dickson.
photo: Allan Dawson/File

“There’s not enough truck drivers; we’re short already,” he said.

Closer to home, the Manitoba pork sector is wrestling on how to introduce social distance while maintaining the value chain.

The pork council has urged farms to prepare for the virus to break out in their staff. Farms must be prepared for that sudden lack of labour, as well as the risk of further spread, Dickson said.

“We don’t want to swamp them, but we’re trying to say to them: ‘You need to have a contingency plan on your farm,’” he argued.

“The other thing is we’re saying to the public health officials that we can’t send people home who are healthy,” he added. “If someone at work, at that barn, got sick, that doesn’t mean that all the staff have to be sent home. Someone’s got to feed the animals. We’ve got sows farrowing. Someone’s got to be there.”

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Barns are increasing their sanitation in lunchrooms and common areas, he noted.

Apart from barn staff, the industry has also wrestled with the continued need for feed trucks and pig shipment.

The sector has been looking for means to keep those drivers healthy as they continue to visit farms across the province, Dickson said. Drivers are being asked to take extra care wiping down their cabs and limiting contact with people when making deliveries, he said.

Processing

Manitoba’s two major processing plants, and their large staff, have also presented question marks. Brandon’s Maple Leaf Foods, for example, employs about 1,900 people.

The company has insisted that any ill staff stay home (while also noting that those staff will continue to be paid under the company’s short-term disability plan).

The company has also joined most other Canadian agribusinesses in sanitizing staff and common areas, as well as increasing the number of people working from home and curtailing staff travel. Service providers, visitors and other outside human contact has also been restricted, the company said, and their staff is avoiding in-person contact with customers or suppliers.

For those who are coming in to work, Maple Leaf Foods said they are changing work stations to add in social distance, staggering break times and adding more break areas.

“As a leading North American producer of meat, poultry and plant proteins, we already have strict safety policies and procedures in place,” a statement published on the Maple Leaf Foods website reads. “Our strong biosecurity programs that we follow for food safety also work as protection against this virus. We will continue to maintain these high standards.”

The pandemic has not seriously impacted the company’s plants, shipping or exports so far, the statement went on to say.

The province’s closure of schools and childcare facilities has also raised some question with processors, Dickson said.

On March 17, the province added licensed childcare facilities to their planned three-week shutdown of schools. Childcare facilities will be closed from March 20-April 10, while K-12 classes are cancelled from March 23-April 10.

“We’ve got a lot of men and women and they’re often husband and wife teams working at the same plant,” Dickson said. “Or one’s working at the plant and one’s working at another job; how does this all work in terms of looking after the kids and so on?”

When asked for comment, Maple Leaf Foods pointed to its online COVID-19 policy. The policy did not mention childcare.

HyLife Foods did not reply to requests for an interview.

“The good thing is that the government realizes that the food industry is an essential industry and these things have to carry on in some way or another,” Dickson said.

About the author

Reporter

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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