Alta. NDP want public inquiry into outbreaks at meat plants

The official opposition Alberta NDP is urging the government to launch a public inquiry into the COVID-19 outbreaks at two meat packing facilities.

The NDP argued today the government failed to act on the Cargill outbreak in High River, and said it appears to be resistant to taking meaningful action at the JBS facility in Brooks.

Labour critic Christina Gray said the inquiry should happen once the pandemic is over. It would hold the government to account and help the public learn about what happened, she said.

The call for action comes after outbreaks of COVID-19 were reported at the Cargill and JBS beef facilities.

As of Thursday, there have been 480 Cases of COVID-19 reported at the Cargill plant, which has now closed. One employee has died from the virus.

At JBS, there are 124 reported cases. There has been one death at JBS caused by the virus, according to Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw.

Prior to the Cargill closure, the union representing workers urged the government to shutter the facility.

The United Food and Commercial Workers had raised concerns about tight quarters, lack of personal protection equipment and other issues.

It has also requested the closure of the JBS plant and the Olymel facility in Red Deer, saying it needs assurances workers will be safe.

The NDP said the United Conservative Party government didn’t act fast enough and should have closed the Cargill facility earlier. It has also requested the government close the JBS and Olymel facilities to ensure worker safety.

Hinshaw said protective measures were put in place at Cargill and have been established at other meat processing facilities.

But with Cargill, she said, it’s possible spread may have occurred before protective measures were established.

The situation is complex, she added, suggesting that the virus may have easily spread among employees through carpooling or by living together.

OH&S is investigating the cases at JBS and Cargill to determine if there was non-compliance. It won’t comment further on the matter.

The closure of Cargill and the reduction in shifts at JBS have impacted the beef industry.

Feedlot producers say they have been experienced losses of $600 to $700 per head because of the temporary closure at Cargill.

Janice Tranberg, president of the National Cattle Feeders’ Association, has said feedlot owners are shifting fat cattle to maintenance rations and hoping the Cargill plant stoppage will be short-lived.

The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association has been speaking with provinces about slaughter capacity at provincial and federal plants to help mitigate the issue.

Contact jeremy.simes@producer.com

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