‘Canary in the coal mine:’ Meat industry says more safety coming with COVID-19

The meat-packing sector has been hard hit by the health crisis

CALGARY — A group representing Canada’s meat-packers is expecting more changes in the coming months to make sure workers have protection from COVID-19.

Chris White, president of the Canadian Meat Council, says $77.5 million earmarked by Ottawa for the food-processing industry will be used for future changes to plants — not to pay for measures already put in place.

“There’s a pretty strong expectation further mitigation efforts will need to be put in place,” White said.

“In conversations the industry has had with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, everybody’s trying to determine what else we can do to further protect the workers.”

The meat-packing sector has been hard hit by the health crisis.

Cargill temporarily shut down plants in High River, Alta., and Chambly, Que., after outbreaks of COVID-19. Olymel shut down its hog slaughter and processing plant in Yamachiche, Que., and the JBS beef plant in Brooks, Alta., temporarily went down to one daily shift from two.

The Cargill and JBS operations in Alberta account for 70 per cent of Canada’s beef production.

“I think it caught the whole world off guard. I don’t think any sector could have anticipated what this looked like. In some respects, too, meat-packing plants have been a bit of the canary in the coal mine,” White said.

It’s not feasible to rebuild the plants, he said, but safety measures being taken have evolved since the first outbreaks at the facilities.

“At the end of every day, we have an assessment and the plants make an assessment to say ‘this worked today.’

“Can you retrofit in terms of making parts of the plant have more automation than they currently have? Does that mean a plant would have to shut down for an extended period of time in order to do that type of retrofitting? There’s some pretty significant conversations that need to take place.”

Federal officials have said the emergency money for food processing might not move until the end of September. It’s intended to help companies get more protective equipment for workers and to upgrade and reopen shuttered meat facilities forced to close.

Rob Meijer, head of business development, marketing and sustainability for JBS Canada, said the company is focused on working with employees, ranchers, public-health officials and the community of Brooks to reduce transmission of the novel coronavirus.

“We will continue to carefully monitor COVID-19 testing and our risk mitigation on a daily basis, and will make any decisions on additional mitigation measures based on the best available data,” he said.

An official with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, which represents meat-packing employees at the two Alberta beef plants, agrees that the companies are unlikely to build new facilities.

Michael Hughes said any future changes should involve consultations with workers.

“There’s plenty of things they could do … like slowing down the line speed, not having the same amount of production that you have pre-COVID-19, pre-social-distancing rules,” Hughes said.

“That to us is something that needs to be discussed, because we really need to look at the entire food system.”

Hughes said the pandemic requires a review of every “nook and cranny” at the plants to assess whether they’re safe.

“Now, if you have 250 people using a keypad on a microwave every day, that suddenly is a health and safety risk, so our committee is challenged with evaluating that sort of thing.”

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