Pandemic ‘poses particular challenges’ for food processing plants: Freeland

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

“I am so grateful to all of our farmers and ranchers and food processors, but you’re right that the coronavirus poses particular challenges to food processing facilities because of the dangers of contagion there,” Freeland said during her briefing with reporters today.

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

Cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed at three Alberta meat packing plants, according to the union that represents plant workers.

United Food and Commercial Workers Canada Union local 401 president Thomas Hesse said three cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed at the JBS plant in Brooks, Alta.

At the Cargill plant in High River, there are 38 COVID-19 cases, and in March one worker at Harmony Beef in Balzac tested positive, he said.

Hesse said the union has reached out to those plants, and to the Olymel pork plant in Red Deer, to ask them to proactively shut down to keep their workers safe.

“They’ve all said no. But Cargill has in some ways done what we’ve asked because of pressure,” Hesse said, noting that the plant has reduced its operations.

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

The virus isn’t limited to Canadian processing plants. Smithfield Foods Inc. — the world’s largest pork producer — recently warned that American meat supplies are “perilously close to the edge” after it shut its South Dakota plant due to an outbreak.

“Food processors are an essential part of our food supply chain and food security is clearly really important in a crisis like this,” said Freeland. “We have been talking with industry leaders.”

Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said the government has set up a meat and poultry working group to pursue a national approach to the problem. She called the people working in meat processing plants “absolutely essential for us to maintain a stable food supply as we tackle this pandemic.”

“The government of Canada is aware that some meat processing plants are reducing slaughter capacity or temporarily closing due to impacts of COVID-19, which is causing a backup of live animals on farms across the country,” Bibeau said in a statement to CBC News.

“During these unprecedented times, the meat industry is adapting to the pressures on the supply chain and ensuring prudent management, including for the welfare of people and animals. Canada remains committed to working with U.S. officials to facilitate our integrated supply chains and ensure that goods continue to flow.”

Prices could rise, but don’t panic: expert

It’s not clear yet what those industry talks might lead to.

A government official speaking on background said Ottawa isn’t ruling out any actions to assist the processing industry.

Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph, said Canadians shouldn’t panic if they see a rise in meat prices.

“What we can expect in a few weeks is less meat getting onto the market, probably rising prices, maybe some empty grocery store shelves for a little bit of time,” he said.

“I don’t think these are things that are going to cause anybody to go hungry, but are we going to have the same level of convenience and cost in our food system over the next four months as we traditionally expect? No.”

Fraser said the increase will hit low-income Canadians harder, however.

“The double effect of increased prices due to supply chain disruption plus wage loss due to unemployment will create a food security problem,” he said, applauding the Liberal government’s announcement earlier this month of $100 million for food banks and breakfast clubs.

Disruptions at food processing plants also could cause problems for farmers with limited barn capacity.

WATCH: Freeland on food supply chain

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland says the pandemic is creating significant challenges for food processing facilities but the government is working with the industry to keep the food supply chain working. 2:00

“If a farmer can’t sell this week’s hogs to a slaughter plant or a meat packing plant, then they’re going to quickly run out of capacity just to keep animals because the little ones are getting bigger.” he said.

“I think one of the things we’ll see in the very near future is farmers faced with the awful decision of having to decide to euthanize piglets, for instance.”

Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax, called processing plants “the weakest link” in Canada’s food security.

“I think processing is desperate for attention around the country. In the Atlantic, we’ve lost several processing plants,” he told an online seminar on the topic today.

“Go to the centre of the store, you’ll find a lot of products processed elsewhere. And what’s hurting is that we are actually buying a lot of food from elsewhere in the world with Canadian ingredients in them. We ship out wheat, beef, pork and buy it back in a bottle or a can at ten times the price.

“We need more investments. That, to me, is the weakest link we have.”

Concerns about labour shortages

Freeland’s comments came after a CBC News report on an internal government briefing note that warns of labour shortages that could affect food supplies and undermine Canada’s critical infrastructure.

The two most “pressing” areas of concern, the note says, are procurement of medical goods and the stability of the food supply chain.

“Labour shortages could also affect Canada’s critical infrastructure, including power grids, banking and telecommunications and this will further impair Canadians’ quality of life at this difficult time,” it says.

Bibeau says she’s confident Canada has enough food — but acknowledged during a Wednesday press conference that labour shortages on farms and outbreaks among workers at processing plants could affect the food supply.

“I think our system is strong enough and resilient enough that it will adapt, but these days it is particularly challenging,” she said, while encouraging Canada to start growing war-era “victory gardens” to supplement their own supplies.

“I don’t worry though that we won’t have enough food to eat in Canada. We might have some challenges in terms of variety and maybe on prices at this certain point. But it’s always good to learn how to grow food.”

Another looming question is whether enough temporary foreign workers will be allowed into Canada for the planting season, and how safe they’ll be during both the mandatory 14-day quarantine period and on the job.

Most of these temporary foreign workers are employed in Canada’s produce industry.

Bibeau’s office said that, normally, about half of the seasonal agricultural workers involved in planting arrive in Canada by the end of April, with the remainder arriving by the end of June.

“For the 2020 season, over 29,000 work permits have already been approved for the agriculture sector, with around 12,000 workers already in Canada, including over 2,000 that have arrived since the travel ban exemption,” said Bibeau’s spokesperson, Jean-Sébastien Comeau.

“There remain 17,500 workers with approved work permits that have not travelled to Canada as of yet. Flights are being booked every day to bring these workers in.”

A chance to rethink food security 

Bibeau said Wednesday Canada has made progress in talks with Mexico and Guatemala but organizing chartered flights to some of the smaller regions remains a challenge.

“We are a bit behind the curve and we have to wait for them to go through the 14 day isolation period,” she said. “A little bit behind, but still encouraging.” 

Earlier this week, the federal government announced it would provide $1,500 per worker to help agricultural employers cover wages while the workers are in quarantine, or the costs of isolating them over the mandatory 14 days quarantine period.

Fraser said the pandemic has revealed vulnerabilities in Canada’s meat packing industry and its reliance on foreign farm labour which should trigger a conversation about Canada’s food security.

“Maybe investing in an education program for Canadian youth so that they can work on farms is another part of our food system resilience strategy that will protect us from this occurrence ever happening again,” he said. 

“Maybe developing a preparedness plan for the food system. We’ve never done that as a country or as a province. Maybe we should be developing a preparedness plan so that we have a playbook.”
 

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