The coronavirus continues to slow the economy down, bringing the food supply chain to its knees. Now, meat processors are having a moment in the spotlight, but not for good reasons. Plants across the United States and Canada are idling or closing as workers become infected. Here at Freight Broker Live, we aim to keep you updated on the latest developments on this topic. Previous articles can be found here, here, and here.
Smithfield Foods made headlines when it closed its Sioux Falls, SD plant on Easter Sunday, after 238 workers tested positive for the virus. Since then, several reports of meat plants being affected north of the border have also surfaced. Cargill, Harmony, Maple Leaf, and JBS in Canada have all reported cases of coronavirus among workers and have taken a variety of measures to combat the spread of the virus.
In Alberta, a Cargill meat processing plant has been linked to 358 cases of coronavirus, comprising 15% of Alberta’s total cases. Cases at a JBS plant in Brooks, Alberta reached the double digits. Harmony Beef in Balzac has one reported case. Cargill, JBS, and Harmony together comprise three quarters of the beef supply in Canada. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency was quick to reassure consumers that Covid-19 is not a food-borne illness and cannot be transmitted through meat.
These plants have so far resisted calls to close. A statement from JBS said that, ‘The food supply is a critical infrastructure industry and we have a special responsibility to maintain operations on behalf of the country. We take this responsibility seriously.’ The plant promised that safety measures have been put in place, however the company would not release any further information ‘out of respect for the families’ of the workers.
According to local union officials, Cargill has laid off 1,000 workers, and another 500 do not have shifts. A representative for the company says that there have been no layoffs, but that Cargill canceled a second shift. Meanwhile, the company is working with health officials to implement new safety measures, such as barriers between workstations and enhanced screening for employees. Representatives say that the plant will close if necessary.
Harmony Beef briefly halted cattle slaughtering after a worker tested positive for coronavirus. The worker, and those who had been in contact with the worker were asked to stay home for fourteen days. The plant has since implemented a more frequent cleaning schedule and a new system of screening workers.
Maple Leaf Poultry idled its Brampton, Ontario plant until they are ‘confident that it is safe to return to work,’ according to a company press release. Olymel closed a plant in Quebec for a two week period. That plant has since reopened with increased screening activities and adaptations such as separation panels.
The government entity Public Safety Canada recently warned that if infection rates continue to accelerate, it could compromise the labor supply in essential services, and most pressingly in the food supply chain. Meat processing plants tend to be less automated than some other food processing facilities. Employees frequently work in ‘elbow to elbow’ conditions by design, conducive to spreading the virus.