The key lesson of COVID outbreaks at Manitoba meat processors? Be proactive

One report suggests meat processors were warned to prepare and failed to act

Workers bone and cut beef at a 
meat-packing plant in Toronto.

When it comes to COVID-19 at meat-processing facilities one thing has become clear — you can’t wait until you’ve got a problem to act.

“With this virus you have to take precautions in advance,” said Jeff Traeger, president of UFCW local 832, which represents workers at Manitoba’s Maple Leaf, HyLife and Exceldor Co-operative meat-processing facilities.

Since March, dozens of meat-processing facilities around the world have become COVID-19 hot spots.

In the early days of the pandemic, Cargill’s beef-processing plant near High River, Alberta saw about 950 of its employees test positive for COVID-19, the Calgary Herald reported. Three deaths were tied to the plant.

A Globe and Mail report in May detailed how employees were bringing their own (sometimes makeshift) masks and weren’t required to wear them until mid-April.

Shortly after, an outbreak hit JBS beef-processing plant in Brooks, Alberta. By May 20, 650 employees had tested positive for COVID-19 and one had died, according to a report from Global News.

The Exceldor Co-operative poultry- processing facility in Blumenort was the site of a cluster of COVID cases this fall. photo: Geralyn Wichers

So when Brandon’s Maple Leaf Foods facility reported cases of COVID-19 this August, the union called for it to be shut down until the disease was controlled at the facility. Traeger said they feared the facility would become another Cargill.

However, Brandon’s Maple Leaf facility never reported above 100 cases during the outbreak and no deaths were reported. The province maintained that there was no evidence of transmission within the facility and attributed the rise in cases to community spread. The plant was allowed to remain open.

Traeger chocked this up to good preparation on Maple Leaf’s part.

“I think they did pretty much everything that came their way,” Traeger said. This included looking to competitors and other facilities around the world to see what was working for them.

At the time, some workers at the facility said Maple Leaf wasn’t doing enough. About 200 workers circulated an open letter, which said, “It’s clear to us that the COVID cases (at the plant) are related to the facility’s inability to ensure safe working conditions or take workers seriously.”

Workers speaking on condition of anonymity told the Co-operator their cafeteria lacked handwashing areas and that it was difficult to distance in bathrooms and locker rooms.

In southeastern Manitoba, the Exceldor Co-operative poultry-processing facility saw a cluster of cases in late October and into November. The facility of about 650 workers had 76 confirmed cases with a “handful” active on November 19. The province maintained there was no evidence of the virus spreading within the workplace and did not require the facility to close.

Again, the facility had stringent safety protocols in place and added more when employees became sick.

“No one is trying to do anything other than keep everyone safe,” said Chris White, president and CEO of the Canadian Meat Council. “Our industry has been led by science the whole way.

“Some plants have taken extraordinary measures when they didn’t have to shut down, or they didn’t have to do certain things based on their conversations with public health,” said White. “They felt because these are workers that they know and they deal with every day, and they are in their communities, they would rather err on the side of being extra cautious.”

Worrying trends

However, the fact remains that around the world meat packers have been sitting ducks for COVID-19 outbreaks.

The facilities share many similar characteristics. Employees worked in close proximity to one another for long periods in cold, dry environments.

“We know that viruses like cooler, drier air,” said epidemiologist Cynthia Carr, founder of EPI research. “For a virus that gets in through our nose… the drier our nose is, the less defence we have against a virus getting in.”

Viruses also last longer on surfaces in cool temperatures, Carr said.

In the United States, JBS and Tyson Foods both said they had installed or were exploring ultraviolet air treatment systems in several plants, according to a July 17 report from Reuters.

White noted that Canadian processors were also considering ventilation improvements.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) also noted that many meat workers share work spaces, shared transportation to the workplace, lived in congregate housing, or had frequent community contact with other workers.

Carpooling is extremely common at Blumenort’s Exceldor facility, Traeger said. In statements to media, the province identified carpooling as a potential reason for the virus’s spread among Exceldor workers.

In response, the company issues masks and car sanitization kits to workers, Exceldor said.

However, some suggest meat processors should have been more prepared than they were when the virus first hit.

An August report from the investigative journalism resource ProPublica suggests American meat processors were warned they could see trouble and did little to prepare for a pandemic of any kind.

During the Bush administration, leaders of the food and agriculture industry visited Washington to work with government to develop a plan to sustain critical services during a pandemic, ProPublica reports.

Processors were told to plan with the assumption that 40 per cent of staff could be absent for two weeks at the height of a pandemic wave.

The report quotes government documents from 2007, saying, “Effective continuity planning including protection of personnel during an influenza pandemic is a ‘good business practice’ that must become part of the fundamental mission of all federal, state, local and tribal governmental departments and agencies, private sector businesses and institutions.”

Later, government agencies would try to get the meat industry participating in planning exercises. A meat industry trade association circulated a template for a pandemic plan. The Labour Department recommended businesses with “high-population-density work environments” stockpile masks.

“Instead, most of the industry’s attention went to developing detailed protocols to prevent disease among poultry and livestock,” write the report authors.

White said processors had some kind of plan, like they’d have a fire escape plan.

“I don’t think anyone anticipated something on this scale,” he said. “I think people were much more focused on African swine fever as an example. What would they do if ASF entered into Canada, and we spent a lot of time over the last couple of years talking to government.”

Canadian planning

In 2007, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada hosted a pandemic influenza emergency simulation project for the agri-food sector with the intention of determining readiness among various parts of the agri-food chain and to get input on potential impact of an influenza pandemic on the sector.

Numerous livestock organizations, such as Chicken Farmers of Canada and the Canadian Pork Council attended. Of processors, only Maple Leaf attended (by teleconference).

Among impacts, processors discussed that “an absenteeism rate of 35 per cent during harvest season… would cause serious problems.” They noted that just-in-time deliveries make the food system vulnerable to disruption. They also discussed that people delivering food to consumers are often low income and can least afford to take preventive measures. “This will contribute to the spread of disease,” the report says.

The report says that all parties agreed pandemic planning was important, and two had plans in place.

The Manitoba Co-operator contacted Cargill, JBS, Maple Leaf Foods, and Exceldor to ask about pre-COVID pandemic plans.

Maple Leaf said, “We had developed a Pandemic Response Plan in advance of COVID-19 that has been instrumental to protecting our people. We have refined the plan since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared.”

It did not give any details on what this plan entailed.

Exceldor said it had a crisis management program prior to the pandemic which identified “various situations” and plans to manage them.

“A global pandemic was a scenario we did not cover,” said spokesperson Gabrielle Fallu.

JBS and Cargill did not respond to inquiries.


Outbreaks by the numbers

Maple Leaf was the only Canadian meet processor to participate in a 2007 pandemic planning workshop for the meat sector. Following that, the company formulated a Pandemic Response Plan it says has been instrumental in protecting employees and the business.

Cargill, High River, Alta.

Approximately 950 COVID-positive employees. Three deaths linked to the plant.

JBS Canada, Brooks, Alta.

Approximately 650 COVID-positive employees. One death linked to the plant.

Maple Leaf Foods, Brandon, Man.

Less than 100 COVID-positive employees. No deaths linked to the plant.

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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