Ottawa watching food supply chain ‘very, very carefully’ after Alberta outbreak

Meat prices could go up now that a massive processing plant in Alberta has temporarily shut itself down following a COVID-19 outbreak — but it’s not likely to lead to a domestic shortage, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today.

“We’ve heard from Canadian beef producers and associations that the priority will be ensuring Canadian supply before they move to exporting. Much of our beef is exported,” he told reporters during his daily news briefing this morning.

“But right now the priority will be on domestic supply. We are not, at this point, anticipating shortages of beef, but prices might go up. We will, of course, be monitoring that very, very carefully.”

The Cargill plant south of Calgary announced Monday it will shut down temporarily after one worker there died and more than 484 people fell ill following a surge in novel coronavirus cases.

The High River plant processes about 4,500 head of cattle per day — more than one-third of Canada’s beef-processing capacity.

Employees at the facility have accused the company of ignoring physical distancing protocols and trying to lure them back to work from self-isolation. The company said in a statement it was a difficult decision to close the facility.

“We know that it is extremely important to do everything we can to keep Canadians safe, to keep workers in all industries across this country, essential or not, as safe as we possibly can and I’m pleased to see measures being taken to reflect on how to keep people safe,” said Trudeau.

Last week, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said the government is working on ways to support Canada’s food processing plants in response to concerns about labour shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The coronavirus poses particular challenges to food processing facilities because of the dangers of contagion there,” Freeland told a news conference on Thursday.

“That is something that our government has been working on, that I’ve been personally focused on over the past few days.”

The outbreak at the Cargill plant is the largest flareup in Alberta. As of Monday afternoon, Alberta had 2,908 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

On Monday, Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said 484 cases are now linked to the plant; 360 of those cases are Cargill workers. The remaining 124 cases are people who came into contact with those workers.

Two other meat-packing plants in Alberta have seen workers test positive for COVID-19 and one of those plants is currently experiencing an outbreak.

In March, production was temporarily halted after one worker at Harmony Beef in Balzac tested positive. Hinshaw said last week that the situation at that plant north of Calgary was under control.

On Monday, she said 67 workers at the JBS meat plant in Brooks have now tested positive, up from three cases last week.

Meanwhile, the Olymel hog slaughter and cutting plant in Yamachiche, Que., reopened last week after shutting down for two weeks following an outbreak among employees there.


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