Protein companies ponder COVID-19 echoes

How many of the COVID-19 adjustments are likely to stick as the ‘old normal’ slowly reasserts itself?

Flip the calendar back to this time last year.

It’s the first months of 2020. COVID-19 is just starting to worm its way into the North American consciousness. Most of us have just heard the phrase “social distancing” for the first time. The first COVID-19-related public health orders are being released.

Inside food-processing plants and construction sites of businesses, staff are trying to figure out how all of this is going to work. There are successes. There are failures.

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Now jump back to today. Those same plants and worksites have had a year to adjust to the ‘new normal.’ Some food-processing facilities in Canada have had outbreaks. New health policies have been developed. New protective equipment has been introduced. Levels of lockdown shift from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but more people are still working from home.

Imaginations have also started to turn towards this time next year, when hopefully there is a little more of the ‘old normal’ mixed in.

But when three industry leaders took to the virtual podium at the recent 2021 Manitoba Protein Summit, they said they’re not expecting next year to be identical to the pre-COVID era.

Roquette Canada CEO Dominique Baumann, HyLife Foods senior director of corporate sustainability Sheldon Stott and North America operations leader Leon Fletcher of Cargill Protein all said they expect at least some of the effects of the pandemic to linger.

Why it matters: Food processors in the protein sector are doing business differently under COVID-19. How much of that is likely to stick around after the pandemic?

All were asked to weigh in on what changed due to the pandemic, what they would do over, and what shifts they expect will still be in play in the era post-COVID-19.

If Stott could have the first few months of the pandemic back, he said, HyLife would strive to be more proactive. The company might have mobilized a COVID-19 response team earlier, he said. Measures they now have in place as a matter of course, such as electric fobs entry for contact tracing, a rapid testing program and mandatory masks in more areas, might have made an appearance faster. Their current daily health checks would have been in place “from Day 1.”

“We felt that HyLife produced a fairly robust, we would say industry-leading, COVID response,” he said. “We felt we were fairly successful in prevention within our facility and have continued throughout this pandemic without any disruption… though looking back, I think there are obviously things that we would have done to help prepare ourselves a little better.”

Those daily health checks, he noted, will likely stay in place even past the pandemic.

Both Roquette and Cargill, meanwhile, argued that the global scale of their business helped give them a head start on their North America facilities, since both companies operate in earlier COVID-19 hot zones.

By early March, Roquette had the “key implementation measures,” such as temperature checks, sanitation and masks in place at their construction site in Portage la Prairie, Baumann said, although he later said the company had initial challenges getting mandatory mask rules in place. Site audits and on-site testing also made an appearance throughout the year.

The site in Portage la Prairie did confirm a number of positive cases in fall 2020 during an overall spike of cases province-wide.

Cargill also started evaluating social distancing and collecting barriers and other protective equipment early. In an ideal world and with a perfect head start, Fletcher said, Cargill would have liked to source some of that protective equipment earlier, given the scale of their operations.

Infection on transportation, such as buses and carpooling, however, was a problem the company had not had previously faced the same way in some of its global facilities, he noted.

Likewise, he noted, last-minute capital projects to reduce transmission like bathrooms, locker rooms or cafeterias are difficult.

“We quickly made some adjustments there and made significant capital investments in some of our larger facilities to get greater spacing,” Fletcher said.

The company’s beef plant in High River, Alta. fell prey to the pandemic in spring 2020. Over 900 cases were eventually linked to the outbreak, which has since drawn a class-action lawsuit, filed in summer 2020, and RCMP investigation, announced in January 2021.

One of Canada’s largest beef plants, the resulting temporary shutdown contributed to significant cattle market backlogs.

Road into 2022

The often repeated suggestion that more people post-COVID-19 will work from home will likely play out, panellists noted, although likely not full time.

Dominique Bauman. photo: Supplied

“We learned how to work remotely,” Baumann said. “We were somewhat reluctant to jump into the pool and work remotely. Working from home, we didn’t have the tools and I’m very proud of our IT team, who implemented the teams and new ways of communicating within a few weeks.”

Some of those tools, such as those that make it easier to work in teams globally, should follow the company out of the pandemic, he noted, although training and bringing new staff on is a challenge while remaining totally out of the office.

“Virtual has its place,” Fletcher also said. “I don’t think it’s placed every day in our lives, but it’s worked.”

At the same time, both Baumann and Stott noted, the lessons on remote work will likely translate into better teamwork on a global scale, while events that previously warranted a flight might now be done with communications technology.

“I think we’ve learnt that there are things that don’t require your in-person attention and I think we’re going to utilize technology on a more consistent basis ongoing,” Stott said, although he also noted that many staff do look forward to the increased connectivity of heading back to the office.

The corporate giant that is Cargill, meanwhile, has learned to be more nimble, according to Fletcher. Prior to the pandemic, he said, the company, “had a lot of red tape.”

“As a big organization in roughly 70 countries, 160,000 people globally, we’re slow at times,” he said. “I think the pandemic helped us to become quicker to react to our stakeholder needs, our customers’ needs, consumers’ needs and really to balance the global economy of scale.”

For HyLife, however, Stott says the pandemic has also led the company into a renaissance of their “employee-first” philosophy, both in terms of mental and physical health.

“Through the pandemic, there was a very dramatic shift in mindset towards a focus on our employees’ health and welfare and how that relates to overall health and welfare and success of our company,” he said.

Stott pointed to staff programming and protections that have been introduced since the start of the pandemic, such as new employee resource groups, “to help support our employees through this challenge and beyond.”

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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