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COVID-19 Is Pushing Canada’s Meat Supply to the Brink of Collapse

The global pandemic has wrecked havoc on Canada’s meat supply as workers in processing plants for beef in Alberta, pork in Ontario and chicken in British Columbia all test positive for the coronavirus.

In short: Commercial meat plants in Canada failed to heed warnings from American outbreaks at meat facilities and concerned local unions to temporarily shutdown. This has put workers at risk, will likely cause food shortages nationwide and has endangered local supply chains.

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Processing plants in focus: The two biggest outbreaks, at Cargill and JBS food plants in Alberta, are owned by American and Brazilian companies respectively and together process 70% of Canada’s beef supply.

Despite the fact that both these companies had outbreaks at some of their American plants and received warnings from local unions, they were slow to provide protective equipment for employees and refused to temporarily shut down following initial outbreaks.

Canadian timeline:

  • March 27th – Production at Alberta family owned Harmony Beef halts after employee test positive for COVID-19.
  • April 12th – UFCW 401 President Thomas Hesse sends a letter calling for Cargill Meat Solutions in High River, Alberta to suspend production for two weeks following reports of an outbreak at the facility.
  • April 14th – Following reports that 38 Cargill employees have tested positive, 1000 employees are laid off while the remaining 2000 rest work on reduced shifts.
  • April 15th – Testing facilities are set up at the plant.
  • April 20th – 484 test positive due to the outbreak at the plant. Cargill agrees to make the “difficult decisions” to temporarily shutdown.
  • April 21st – 28 employees test positive at United Poultry Ltd. in British Columbia test positive for COVID-19. The plant temporarily shut down.
  • April 23rd – 124 employees and contractors at JBS Foods meat processing plant in Brooks, Alberta had tested positive. Despite online petitions, the foreign owned JBS refuses to shut down production.
  • April 23rd – 7 employees test positive at Conestoga meats pork processing plant in Breslau, Ontario. The plant chose to stay open despite Waterloo Region Public Health warning that expected more employees to to be infected.

Workers at risk: The majority of those employed at the meat plants are low income foreign workers who are either permanent residents or temporary foreign labor.

  • These workers, most of whom send much of their paychecks to families back home, were already living in precarious situation which likely accelerated the spread.
  • Workers at Cargill claimed that many of them live in shared housing and carpool to work to save money which meant they did not have adequate space to self isolate.

Fear of death: Another employee at Cargill stated that there is fear among the community of the consequences of the outbreak. The first death from the plant, a 60 year old lady of Vietnamese descent, took a sick day on Friday the 17th, was hospitalized on Saturday and died on the Sunday.

Meanwhile: Ranchers who distribute to the now closed meat plants face huge loses as there is now an abundance of livestock waiting to be slaughtered and processed thus decreasing their market value.

The political angle

  • Ottawa public health expert Amir Attaran interviewed by the Tyee claimed that the Alberta outbreaks should have caught no one by surprise and that it was clear the meat plants would become hotspots.
  • On April 18th, Alberta Minister of Agriculture Forestry tweeted to reassure workers that their “worksite is safe”. Two days later, over 400 employees at Cargill had tested positive.
  • On April 22nd, Occupational Health and Safety opened an investigation at Alberta’s JBS and Cargill plants looking into “potential exposures of workers at the facilities” to COVID-19.
  • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated on April 21st that the government had “heard from Canadian beef producers and… the priority will be [protecting] domestic supply”. However, little was said about the public health crisis.

The bottom line: Canada’s meat supply is under huge strain as production plants are temporarily shut down or remain open risking further outbreaks. Prices are likely to rise as availability of packaged meat is drastically reduced. Federal and Provincial governments who have been playing catch-up face difficult decisions on how to protect local supply chains while ensuring workers can operate safely.