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COVID-19: Meat packers need to consider safety inside and outside the plant

As COVID-19 ravages communities across North America, many analysts believe meatpacking plants, where employees work in close proximity to each other, are the next ground zero for the spread of the virus. Over a dozen plants have had to close over the last two weeks, at least five of which are in Canada.

The “Big Three” meat processors in Canada--Maple Leaf Foods, Olymel and Cargill--have all been impacted by COVID-19, and each has put it's own protocols in place to put plants back into operation as quickly as possible. Olymel and Maple Leaf each closed two of its plants for deep cleaning after workers contracted COVID-19. Cargill, on the other hand, slowed down production to allow for cleaning and physical spacing after some of its workers contracted the virus. Reports now suggest that close to 400 COVID-19 cases have been identified in households linked to Cargill's plant in High River. That is a problem. Risks are not only inside the plant, but they are also impacting the community.

A few issues do merit some attention. First, many of our plants need to be modernized. Since the beginning of the crisis, all plants in Canada under 10 years old have evaded COVID-19. That is a sign. The virus could eventually get in, but modern infrastructure can play a significant part. Those having issues have been in operation for decades and the result of years of patch work and provisional solutions. The high-volume, low margin nature of the agri-food sector puts tremendous pressure on the entire supply chain, in particular, in North America. Price volatility also makes things more complicated. There is barely any room for capital investments. The region needs more processing, either with newer facilities or with more players.

The other issue is worker mobility. Many plants hire workers who commute by bus from urban centres to remotely located plants. Complying with physical distancing rules on a bus can be complicated, if not impossible. In scope of management’s decision to deal with the pandemic, it should be making the safety of the community one of its priorities. Maple Leaf, Olymel, and other companies made the right decision to temporarily close their facilities to clean and establish safety measures.

Employees at the Cargill plant have continuously voiced concerns about the safety of the working environment. Despite teleconferences, a few interviews here and there, Cargill has failed to reassure the safety of its employees. One can only imagine how different the outcome would be if Cargill was in fact a publicly traded company.

Moving forward, COVID-19 will force management to think about employee safety inside and outside the plant. Not wanting to temporally close the plant can be understandable, particularly for ranchers dealing with the plant. But there is a unique culture in the beef industry that public health and the safety of employees must be priorities above anything else.

XL Foods Inc., which operated a meat-packing plant in southern Alberta, closed for several weeks during a tainted beef recall in 2012. Canadians continued to get their beef fix while prices in those days remained stable. The market can handle a temporary closure. The meat processing industry will be fine, but it will not be perfect and that's okay. There should be enough products.



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