Old meat processing plants struggle to manage disease

Canadian and American meat packers, as well as farmers, are suffering from an aged processing system designed for a different era.

As one packer after another closes to increasingly severe COVID-19 outbreaks, some are wondering how the slaughter industry will re-engineer itself for a post-coronavirus world.

“The scope of how they manage risk will have to change after COVID,” said Sylvain Charlebois, a Dalhousie University food industry analyst who runs the Agri-Foods Analytics Lab there.

“I don’t think for a second (that Canada’s big four meat packers) have suddenly decided to become weak risk managers.”

Instead, meat companies are wrestling with a slaughter plant system largely built one or two generations ago, in eras when concern with an understanding of both food and worker safety was far less advanced than today.

With Cargill’s beef plant in High River, Alta., now shut and JBS’s Brooks, Alta., plant seemingly caught in the same spiral of surging infections and widespread community transmission, the Canadian beef slaughter industry has prevented many farmers from being able to ship finished or feeder animals.

Canada’s pork industry has been beset by problems too, especially with a number of shutdowns in Quebec and Ontario. Small poultry processors have also faced some problems.

But pork and poultry have been able to stumble through better so far, with mostly temporary shutdowns and moderate slowdowns as small numbers of worker infections are controlled.

The pork situation is worse in the United States, with a Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, suffering an extended shutdown after it experienced a spreading outbreak similar to the one in High River.

Other food processing sectors have not seen the sorts of uncontrolled outbreaks experienced in High River or Sioux Falls. Dairy plants have mostly been OK. Grain processing, milling and food production have been generally unaffected.

Brewing and distilling goes on much as before COVID-19 struck.

Meat packing is a form of processing that shares many features with other forms of industrial production.

The wrinkle of handling live animals creates a need for a higher proportion of human workers than is typical with much modern manufacturing, where automation has become dominant inside factories.

But Charlebois said European packers have not had nearly the problems experienced so far by North American companies.

“In Europe, they barely got any effect at all,” said Charlebois.

“A lot of those plants were well-designed.”

They are also much newer, on average, meaning their designs incorporate far better food and worker safety controls.

Newer plants in Canada and the U.S. also seem to be faring better than the old plants.

The High River and Brooks plants are old and designed for a time in which many more workers are needed than is common with newer plants.

Each is older than 30 years.

“In food safety, that’s a lifetime,” said Charlebois.

They are also distant from major urban populations.

That creates the biggest threat of infection transmission, Charlebois thinks. Not only are multitudes of people working in the plants, but they are often transported from nearby communities on buses or live in crowded work camps.

With the big beef plants beset by large outbreaks, Canada beef processing sector seems to be a particular challenge.

But in pork processing, Olymel has managed to clean up early infections, while Maple Leaf is so far shining in keeping operations going.

“You’ve got to give Maple Leaf a lot of credit,” said Charlebois, who praised the company’s decisions in recent years to close old plants and open new ones, rather than renovating aging facilities.

“When you visit (a number of beef plants), it’s a bit of a time warp,” said Charlebois.

Once COVID-19 has passed, Canada’s beef packers and operators of old U.S. operations will need to look at how to change so they don’t fall victim to the next pandemic that sweeps through.

“These facilities are just so (perfect) for a virus,” said Charlebois.

“A virus would love an environment like a meat packing plant.”

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