Beef processors pick up the pace

The JBS plant in Brooks Alta., adds a second shift and adopts more than 100 preventive measures to boost worker safety

The JBS beef packing plant in Brooks, Alta., returned to operating a second shift May 21, a month after reducing activity to one shift April 22.

An outbreak of COVID-19 among employees reduced the workforce and many were not coming to work for fear of contracting the virus. The Cargill beef processing plant in High River, Alta., faced a similar situation, with many workers ill and others fearful of going to work.

As of May 21, there were 10 active cases of COVID-19 among JBS workers and 640 had recovered, according to figures provided by provincial health officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw. At Cargill on the same date, there were five active cases among workers and 943 had recovered.

Rob Meijer, JBS Canada spokesperson, said the return to two shifts will not increase the number of employees on site at any one time.

“The health and safety of our team is top priority. We have been working closely with public health and labour officials each and every day to implement rigorous risk mitigation practices throughout the facility.”

The company said it has adopted more than 100 preventive measures at the Brooks facility to protect its workers, including regular temperature testing, extra protective equipment, physical partitions on production lines and increased sanitation and disinfection efforts.

Between them, JBS and Cargill process about 70 percent of the cattle in Canada. JBS has continued operations, albeit at a slower pace, but Cargill shut down for two weeks in late April and early May at the height of worker illnesses, when two employees died from the virus.

Cargill also implemented extensive changes inside the plant to improve worker safety.

Dennis Laycraft, executive vice-president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, said May 21 that Cargill was processing about 3,200 head per day and was working toward full capacity of 4,000 to 4,500. With its second shift, JBS was processing about 2,000 per day, still below its capacity but with planned increases over time.

Harmony Beef in Balzac, Alta., which was also affected by workers contracting COVID-19, is processing between 450 and 500 head per day, Laycraft said.

In addition, most provincially inspected abattoirs are running at capacity.

As Alberta packers ramp up, they are providing more competitive bidding on fat cattle, which is welcome news for the sector.

In contrast to the western experience, processing plants in Eastern Canada are running above normal capacity, resulting in some Manitoba cattle being shipped into Ontario and boosting prices for fed cattle as packers there bid for stock.

However, inadequate slaughter capacity has been a problem in the East, particularly after the Ryding-Regency plant in Toronto shuttered last year after its federal licence was pulled for regulatory non-compliance.

Rob Lipsett, president of Beef Farmers of Ontario, said a licence application has been made to reopen the plant under a new name and new management. He said the plant has been inspected and the principals are working to address needed changes.

However, Lipsett cautioned that the licensing process can take a long time and although Ontario cattle producers are eager to see extra capacity, it is important that no corners be cut in a rush to reopen the facility.

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