It’s going to be painful, but hopefully COVID-19 in packing plants won’t turn into a nightmare scenario, say the president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and a leading food industry expert.
Alberta’s two big facilities — Cargill’s High River plant and JBS’s Brooks plant — process nearly 75 per cent of the country’s beef. Combined, hundreds of their workers have contracted COVID-19. Cargill’s plant closed down temporarily on April 20 while, at press time, calls were mounting, particularly in Brooks, for the JBS plant to close so it can undergo a deep cleaning.
The impact on cattle producers from the temporary closure of the High River plant and Brooks moving to one shift was immediate.
“The feedlot industry is getting hit now, and every day there is more buildup,” CCA president Bob Lowe said April 27. “It just gets harder and harder. Fat cattle dropped over $500 a head and that’s even if you can get them processed.
“If those cattle don’t leave, then feedlots can’t fill those pens because they’re already full. That affects the feeder market — the 800- to 900-pound cattle that should be going on feed. They’re just sitting there idling right now.
“If that goes on long enough, that will affect the calf market next fall, because there’s no place to put anything.”
But once a plant is cleaned — a process expected to take two weeks — the facility should be able to not only resume processing cattle but continue to do so, he said.
“It would be virtually impossible for COVID-19 to exist in those plants — in my opinion, they’re more sterile than a hospital,” said Lowe. “As far as picking up the bug in the plant, that’s got to be impossible. They’ve spent a ton of money making those plants completely safe, but they can’t control what happens outside of the plant.”
Reopening a facility shouldn’t be a major problem, said Sylvain Charlebois, a professor and director of Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.
“Plants in the East were closed and reopened — I don’t see how it would be different in High River,” said Charlebois, one of the country’s top experts on food production.
But staffing the facilities is more challenging.
“Meat-packing has always had a problem finding a workforce, COVID or not,” he said. “That’s the reality of the sector, and that’s why we have a lot of migrant workers involved with the sector.”
Many of those workers share homes and travel to work together, said American analyst Cassandra Fish, a 30-year industry veteran and a former senior risk manager with Tyson Foods.
“Everybody is exposed to more people,” she said. “They ride to work together in a car or truck. One person drives to save money. There might be four to five people, even six people in a vehicle.”
Charlebois said he is concerned about the ability of the companies to bring workers back — especially as their union has been sharply critical of both companies’ efforts to protect their employees.
“For a union to go out and register concerns with the public on a regular basis, it’s not a good sign,” said Charlebois.
In an open letter to Premier Jason Kenney, the president of the union local representing workers at both plants said, “we have lost faith in the willingness of the Alberta government to do everything necessary to protect workers.”
“Our members have become sick with COVID-19, and some have died,” Tom Hesse, president of the United Food Commercial Workers Canada local, wrote in the April 23 letter. “Recent events suggest that food production has been prioritized over protection of workers’ lives.”
But beef industry officials say that’s not the case and the two companies have taken a number of measures to protect workers. Cargill, for example, has put up Plexiglas dividers between work stations, handed out additional protective equipment such as face shields, and is looking at ways to get employees to work safely, said Dennis Laycraft, executive vice-president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.
Aid will be needed
Every lost day of processing will add significantly to the backlog of cattle. At full production, the two plants can each process 4,000 or more head of cattle each day — so each day of lost production quickly adds up.
“You shut down one of these plants for a month, that’s a whole lot different than shutting it down for two weeks,” said Lowe, who operates Bear Trap Feeders near Nanton. “The longer things stay shut down, the more backup there is or the longer it takes to get caught up.”
The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association has asked Ottawa to immediately implement a set-aside program, which would cover the cost of a “maintenance diet” (of mostly forage instead of grain) for slaughter-ready cattle in the processing backlog.
But government assistance will be needed throughout the entire cattle sector, said Lowe.
“Feeders are taking the hit now (but) it will definitely go down the line to the cow-calf sector,” he said.
However, that will take time.
“The big calf market won’t come along until October,” said Lowe. “There’s a lot of time to have things pick back up.”
Still, with cattle prices dropping, government needs to have a support plan, either by enhancing the cattle price insurance program or via direct aid, he said.
“It’s time for Ottawa to think about an emergency fund for the livestock industry in particular to compensate ranchers and producers for their losses, and also a fund to support farmers and to make sure their operations comply with physical distancing measures that we’re seeing everywhere,” he said. “There are some provisions there, but it’s not enough.”
In a statement on April 24, the federal agriculture minister said her officials are working “around the clock” to respond to the pandemic’s impact on farmers and agri-food businesses.
“We understand the repercussions the short-term capacity reduction in certain meat-processing facilities is having on livestock producers,” Marie-Claude Bibeau said in the statement.
“In collaboration with our provincial partners, we are examining all options to protect workers, support our farmers and processors, and keep high-quality and affordable Canadian meat products available to Canadians… Farmers and food businesses are doing a huge service to feed the nation and they can be confident that their government has their back.”