Alta. NDP requests more livestock support

The Alberta NDP is urging the United Conservative Party government to provide financial support to livestock producers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Official opposition house leader Heather Sweet said today she wants the province to commit to providing additional funds through AgriRecovery.

The federal government is offering $125 million in new money in a set-aside program for hog and cattle farmers through AgriRecovery. It’s expecting provinces to cover 40 percent of the total share, while Ottawa will cover 60 percent.

“We want the province to match their money and look at going farther than those supports,” Sweet said. “They need to come up with an Alberta strategy to support the industry.”

Alberta Beef Producers is also requesting the government provide additional support to producers.

In a letter yesterday, ABP chair Kelly Smith-Fraser wrote that the federal government’s new money doesn’t come close to meeting the needs of the cattle and beef industry.

She said the organization is seeking leadership from the province to act.

“ABP has been clear with the Alberta government about the devastating impacts COVID-19 is having on our industry and the level of support needed to ensure producers can meet the demands of our consumers, who are strong and loyal supporters of Alberta beef,” Smith-Fraser wrote.

Alberta agriculture minister Devin Dresden said in an emailed statement yesterday the province is working through the details of how Alberta’s role in administering the federal set-aside program may look.

He said the set-aside program for the industry is critically important for the province. Alberta processes the majority of beef in Canada.

“This is a good first step from the federal government, but more is required,” Dreeshen said.

During a sitting in the legislature yesterday, the NDP put forth a motion urging the assembly to have an emergency debate over the COVID-19 outbreaks at Cargill and JBS.

To date, there have been 946 COVID-19 cases in workers at Cargill, with 798 workers recovered, according to the government. At JBS, there have been 566 confirmed cases, with 434 workers recovered.

Harmony Beef has 38 confirmed COVID-19 cases in workers with 12 recoveries.

The motion had also requested the assembly debate what supports would be needed for producers given the processing delays.

The motion failed, with UCP members rejecting it.

Sweet said the government’s move to kill the motion is hypocritical. She said the UCP could have shown it takes the issue seriously by accepting the debate.

“This is about Albertans and not about politics,” Sweet said. “The government needs to be open and transparent about plans to address COVID-19, and our job is to ask questions on behalf of Albertans and beef and cattle producers so their voices are heard.”

The UCP has introduced its own motion to discuss the government’s response to the pandemic. It’s not known yet when that debate will happen.

The NDP has urged the government to close the Cargill and JBS plants, citing workers’ concerns that the facilities aren’t safe.

The closures would further hamper the cattle industry, but Sweet said one death is too many. One employee at Cargill and one employee at JBS have died after contracting the virus.

“Ultimately we have to respect that worker safety is paramount and we want to hear from the Alberta government about what the workers are doing is safe, while supporting cattle and hog producers so they don’t have to bear the impact of the closures of plants,” she said.

She said assistance from the federal government, as well as any potential new funding from the province, should also go to small farmers. She said no money should go to meat plants.

When pressed by NDP leader Rachel Notley during question period over why the plants haven’t been ordered to shut down, Premier Jason Kenney said such intervention would ignore advice from officials.

He said officials believe all precautions have been taken.

“As the chief medical officer of health has said, Mr. Speaker, a team of hundreds of people was deployed from Alberta Health Services to deal specifically with the Cargill plant as soon as the first outbreak was confirmed,” Kenney told the assembly.

“Extraordinary measures have been taken and will continue to be taken.”

The government has outlined various measures that they say will enhance safety at the meat packing plants.

Measures include staff temperature checks, face masks and personal protective equipment, enhanced cleaning, social distancing and staggered breaks, among others. Employees will also be provided with COVID-19 tests even if they don’t experience symptoms.

JBS and Cargill are currently under investigation by Occupational Health and Safety. Investigators will look into any issues of non-compliance, the government said.

The NDP has also pressed the government to launch a public inquiry into the situations at JBS and Cargill.

Contact jeremy.simes@producer.com

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