Essential service designation called necessary

Experts say declaration helps protect Canada’s food supply chain but won’t prevent shortages or price increases

UPDATE: April 6, 2020 – 1045 CST – This story has been updated to show that CFIA made the decision to not allow the inspectors to enter the work site while the health risks were assessed. There were no refusals to work by individual inspectors or veterinarians at the facility.

Provincial governments across Canada have declared professions within the food supply chain as essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic, a move that experts say will help critical goods get to people.

All provinces have declared the food supply chain an essential service. It means farmers, processors, veterinarians, farmers’ markets and agri-businesses that support the food supply can remain open while other types of businesses have been ordered to close.

Ellen Goddard, an agricultural economist and the co-operative chair in agricultural marketing and business with the University of Alberta, said the declarations, particularly in Ontario and British Columbia have managed to check every box.

It ensures farmers can grow and sell their products and helps grocery stores remain as stocked as possible, she said.

“Many farmers would be broke if they couldn’t sell their product,” Goddard said. “They need to be protected by being declared an essential service, if we want their products in the marketplace.”

But it appears businesses could still close even if they are declared essential.

A significant outbreak of COVID-19 among employees could cause the company to close.

For instance, Olymel announced March 29 it had shuttered its slaughter and processing plant in Yamachiche, Que., because it said there were a growing number of cases of COVID-19 among employees. About 1,000 employees were laid off.

Olymel said it would resume operations as soon as possible with stronger health and safety measures in place. The closure wouldn’t affect distribution to local markets, it said.

In Alberta, Harmony Beef temporarily halted slaughter operations on March 27 following a case of COVID-19 among one of its employees. The CFIA “made the decision to not allow the inspectors to enter the work site while the health risks were assessed. There were no refusals to work by individual inspectors or veterinarians at the facility.”

Some grocery stores across Canada have also had to close due to cases of the virus.

Alberta has urged the federal government to declare the food supply chain an essential service nationally. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said March 30 the federal government plans on addressing essential services.

However, if a certain essential company or organization experiences cases of COVID-19 among employees, it would likely have to close, clean and gear up at other facilities, Goddard said.

She said they might be able to get support for more testing, ensuring sick employees aren’t working. They could also receive personal protective equipment, like masks and face shields, she added.

Whether a company closes may also depend on the type of business.

For example, CN said March 25 two employees in the United States, one conductor and one truck driver, have COVID-19, but the company continued to operate. The health and safety of workers is its top priority, it said.

The closures, however, have prompted questions over whether Canada could face food shortages or price increases. Temporarily empty shelves have left some consumers uneasy.

Experts believe the food supply chain has been able to handle the extra stress and will continue to function. If anything, there might be delays, Goddard said.

She said the public will have to be careful to not over-buy. Extreme bulk purchasing can cause the system to slightly lag. This was seen last week when some people couldn’t buy flour.

Sylvain Charlebois, a senior director with the Agri-food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said he isn’t concerned about food price increases.

Groceries are experiencing high volumes currently, he said, noting lots of products are being diverted from restaurants to supermarkets.

“Employees in the food industry are miracle workers right now,” he said. “Think about all the pressure they are currently under.”

Goddard said she doesn’t expect grocers to deliberately raise prices.

However, costs to get goods to consumers could increase, potentially resulting in higher prices, she said. Supermarket employees have been given wage raises, migrant workers will need to quarantine, and airplanes could be used more often to transport food, especially during a time of need.

“Will food prices stay low or what they have always been? Possibly not,” she said.

A declaration wouldn’t stop food shortages and price increases, Goddard said. Instead, a global effort will be required. Borders to goods need to remain open.

The Canada-U.S. border is particularly critical, she added. It’s where the majority of food is imported and exported.

“I think we’re going to be OK as long as no one makes a stupid decision,” Charlebois said.

Goddard said companies, farmers and commodity groups should communicate with consumers during the pandemic, letting them know there might be hiccups.

She said many retailers are already doing this. She thanked them for their efforts.

“It’s important for people to hear these messages and keep hearing them because none of us know how long this is going to last,” she said.

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