COVID-19 impacts on the meat trade

The Canadian beef sector has formed a cross industry team to ensure stable beef production and trade can continue under the restrictions of COVID-19.

The first desire is to ensure people stay safe but it is also important to ensure business continuity and make sure food is abundant in stores as well as keep trade moving between Canada and the United States, said beef industry leaders during an online press conference March 20.

They have been in contact with the processing sector to ensure beef moves smoothly through the supply chain.

“I am pleased to say they are finding beef demand is extraordinarily strong right now, particularly driven out of the retail sector. A lot of them are processing six days a week to try and keep up with that demand,” said Dennis Laycraft, executive vice president Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

“I am confident we are as prepared as we can be at this stage with COVID-19 and thank all sectors in the beef chain for implementing good practices that will hopefully build the greatest amount of resilience in our system,” he said.

An unintended consequence of this human virus is labour movement.

“Access to qualified foreign workers remains one of the most important issues impacting beef production in Canada, both in terms of sustaining current production levels but as well as ensuring the continuing availability of beef products to Canadian consumers during this time,” said Janice Tranberg, president of the National Cattle Feeders Association.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture and Canadian Food Processors Association with input from the national beef organizations and others, have built a rigorous proposal to facilitate the entry of temporary foreign workers into Canada despite current border restrictions. The proposal has gone to federal agriculture minister Marie-Claude Bibeau for consideration.

They want the prohibition of foreign travelers to Canada to be amended to exempt agri-food workers who would otherwise qualify under the temporary foreign worker program. They also want the labour market impact assessments work permits for those already in Canada to be expedited.

“I wouldn’t expect there is going to be approval of new temporary foreign workers that is going to be any quicker than normal. What we are working on right now is those that have already had approvals and how do we expedite getting them into the country. How do we extend their approvals so they can stay and keep business as usual going,” she said.

In a fluid situation like this, no one knows the full extent of economic damage.

The federal government’s $82 billion aid package included increased credit with Farm Credit Canada but there are no details yet, said Laycraft.

The livestock groups also want assurances that the entire Canadian food supply is designated critical infrastructure.

The current suite of business risk management programs may not be enough to help if big losses are incurred.

“When you get into a situation like this that goes beyond the normal design of those programs, the answer is no. No one has any idea how long these extraordinary circumstances are going to go on for. We are developing with an industry wide group a series of recommendations…as an industry we are going to make recommendations to make sure we have confidence and ensure the stability of the industry,” said Laycraft.

In the countryside, bull sales and auctions continue, said Rick Wright of the Livestock Markets Association of Canada.

“We will continue with live auctions of cattle but a number of markets across the country are restricting access to the public into the market as one of their response policies,” he said.

While Canadians hunker down in their homes and cook more in their own kitchens they are finding empty store shelves.

A shortage of ground beef in retail stores is fairly common across the country but processors are working longer shifts to fill the demand.

“We are going to do our best in the coming weeks to ensure there is a stable supply of beef that is available. We are in daily contact with the processors and Canadian Food Inspection Agency to ensure everything is working as strongly as it can,” said Laycraft.

Retail demand for beef is high but that is not reflected in live cattle prices.

“There is a lot of frustration from the producers on the feeder cattle prices. There are a lot of unknowns happening,” said Wright.

Canfax reports a rollercoaster in the markets.

Prices for all classes of feeder cattle dropped $10-20 per hundredweight. Some producers decided not to sell this past week and some cattle were passed on electronic markets. Auction volumes in the three prairie provinces were down 55 percent compared to last year.

Live cattle prices have started to move forward but are disconnected with the futures market, said rancher Bob Lowe who was recently named president of the Cattlemen’s Association.

“The futures are showing the unstableness of the market overall because nobody knows what is happening. This big increase in demand for beef, nobody saw that coming either. The price in western Canada did move up this week,” he said.

On the pork side, hogs are being processed in a timely manner in western Canada, said Darcy Fitzgerald of Alberta Pork.

The Canadian Pork Council is participating in regular conference calls with Agriculture Canada to work on these priorities:

  • Food safety and food security for Canadians
  • Borders remain open to the flow of goods for trade
  • Human resources and access to temporary foreign workers for producers and processors

The Ontario Pork has also developed an information page for producers at: https://www.ontariopork.on.ca/Communications/COVID19-Farm-Information

The Livestock Markets Association of Canada, Canadian Beef Breeds Council and CCA have issued guidelines for these events:

For those purchasing cattle and attending sales:

• Where possible view bulls ahead of the sale

• Do not attend sales without an intention to purchase or seriously considering purchasing

• Do not attend a sale if you are sick with even mild symptoms

• One person per farm operation

• Do not shake hands, maintain a two meter social distance

• Consider phone bidding, call ahead to make arrangements with sales staff

• Consider online bidding, sign up for online platforms ahead of time

• Consider online photos and video as an alternative to in person viewing

• Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently

Contact barbara.duckworth@producer.com

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