Essential meat workers require exceptional protections

As Canadian provinces and other jurisdictions around the world take their first tentative steps toward reopening their economies, businesses, health authorities and governments must increase protections for critical businesses.

Meat packers and other food processors right from the beginning of the response against COVID-19 have been designated an essential service.

As such, they must be protected at a level much beyond what has been practised so far.

This includes additional safety protocols, provide personal protective gear beyond what has been delivered so far and be given priority for virus testing. We must also ask if there are lessons to learn from European meat packers who faced the COVID-19 outbreak before we did.

Packers here will likely have to greatly slow their production lines for several more months so that workers can spread out more.

And if that is the case, then the federal government must help livestock producers struggling to manage their supply. Producers are adjusting and have greatly reduced the number of calves sent to feedlots, but they need help. The hog supply chain is even more difficult to manage and we’ve already heard of animals being euthanized because there is nowhere to send them.

Ottawa must immediately implement the recommendations set forth by the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, including the re-establishment of the set-aside program developed in 2003-04 for the BSE crisis that helped to match the fat cattle supply to the packer capacity.

The hog industry is setting out its own needs and these too need federal action.

And in the other direction of the food supply pipeline, retailers must take actions to fairly ration meat supply to customers to prevent price gouging and hoarding.

Meat companies have taken precautions but it is clear they were inadequate.

Olymel, Harmony Beef, Cargill and JBS have all had to temporarily close or slow down operations at various plants across the country.

The same thing is happening at more than a dozen meat plants across the United States.

The reason is that under normal operations, meat plant workers stand shoulder to shoulder. There is no distancing on the cut line making it easy for the virus to spread.

Each time there has been a significant COVID-19 outbreak at a meat plant, it has closed for about two weeks.

If there were many processing plants spread across the country closing an individual location for that period would not cause that much of a disruption.

But in the Canadian beef industry there has been great consolidation. Two Alberta plants, the Cargill operation at High River and JBS at Brooks, between them slaughter 70 percent of Canadian beef cattle.

As this column was written, Cargill was shut down because it was the centre of a major outbreak of the virus and the JBS plant also had many cases and was down to one shift a day, with the union and others calling for it to be temporarily closed as well.

Alberta Occupational Health and Welfare was looking into the outbreaks and investigating worker complaints about inadequate protections and pressure on employees to work when they should have been in quarantine.

There is a chance that the infections began before the latest health protections were put in place. Health authorities will also need to look into ways to ensure that workers are not picking up or spreading the virus when they are not at work.

Medical experts say that we will be struggling against this virus well into 2021, the earliest we can hope for a vaccine to be produced.

The economy can’t be in lock down all that time and it is important to reopen business in stages. It is very possible, though, that increased person-to-person interaction will again raise the amount of COVID-19 circulating in the population.

That will increase the pressure on meat companies and their workers to redouble their defences against the virus to maintain the flow of food to citizens.

Looking further down the road, I expect that the experience with this virus will cause meat packers to consider increased investment in robotics and automation.

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