Virus led to food challenges

McDonald’s Canada was among the food services deemed essential during the COVID-19 crisis and unlike some sectors, it was able to source the supplies it needed, including beef.

Francesca DeBiase, McDonald’s vice-president and chief supply chain officer, said the company’s contingency plan and relationships with suppliers got it through the early volatile days of the pandemic.

She told those participating in the virtual Canadian Beef Industry Conference that the most challenging aspect was finding enough personal protective equipment.

A close second was adapting to closures and reopenings of restaurants in other countries as governments and health departments changed directives.

“It was really difficult, I have to say that,” said DeBiase.

COVID-19 has prompted McDonald’s to strengthen its contingency plans and rethink its resiliency, including its access to Canadian beef.

“Everything we serve starts at the farm or ranch,” she said, so leveraging partnerships with producers will be part of future plans.

The pandemic resulted in McDonald’s temporarily departing from use of 100 percent Canadian beef in its domestic restaurants when packing plant slowdowns and closures affected supply.

Canadian Cattlemen’s Association president Bob Lowe said that proved to be a major stressor for the industry. Two federally inspected Alberta packing plants process most of the beef in Canada.

“One of the biggest things that amazed me was how fast the plants were able to turn things around,” said Lowe.

In a separate session as part of the beef conference, Cargill vice-president of operations Jarrod Gillig said the High River plant, which shut down for two weeks when hundreds of workers became ill, was able to use experiences in American plants that broke with the virus earlier.

Protective barriers and safety measures now in place are likely there to stay, said Gillig. In hindsight, more available PPE would have been ideal, along with more thermometers with which to test employees.

As for other effects from COVID, Lowe said approaches to government by the beef industry showed that agriculture does not have as high a priority among politicians as he feels it should.

Though government provided some assistance, Lowe said attitudinal changes would better protect the beef industry and food security in general.

“My idea of this is the government is a reflection of the people so if the people take their food supply for granted, then government is going to take the food supply for granted,” he said.

“What I’d like to see our main focus being as far as a resilient, strong industry going forward, is if we can get the 98 percent of people that don’t have anything to do with the food supply interested in taking ownership of their food supply, then we’ve won.

“If we can get more people concerned about the food supply … that makes the industry that much more resilient and stronger.”

DeBiase agreed.

“Everyone takes that for granted, that food is going to show up on people’s tables or in the drive-through and the only time they think about it is when something goes wrong.”

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