Two pieces of good news reached Alberta’s hog industry last week, a welcome respite from pressures exerted by the temporary closure of the Olymel processing plant in Red Deer.
Olymel restarted operations March 3 and 4 after a 14-day hiatus caused by a major COVID-19 outbreak among workers. A day later, the Alberta and federal governments announced $4 million in funding to assist hog producers who must deal with a backlog of animals created during the Olymel closure.
Alberta Pork executive director Darcy Fitzgerald said about 90,000 slaughter-ready animals have accumulated during Olymel’s 14-day hiatus and the backlog is unlikely to be fully managed until mid-June.
“We’re up and running so that’s what counts, and hopefully they can get more workers back to the facility and get things ramped up to their regular speeds and get working on the backlog of pigs that need to go to the plant,” said Fitzgerald.
Funding to assist affected producers is channelled through the federal-provincial AgriRecovery program, which involves up to $3 million. The Alberta government contributed another $1 million as a grant to Alberta Pork “to support Alberta food banks and to cover any incidental costs,” said a provincial government spokesperson.
The bulk of the funding will cover up to 90 percent of the cost to feed market-ready hogs that were held back.
Alberta Agriculture minister Devin Dreeshen said the program will pay producers 95 cents per day per animal to cover costs to keep finished hogs on maintenance rations.
“Hog producers who own market-ready hogs intended for processing between Feb. 8 and March 31, 2021, which were held back from shipping due to reduced processing capacity, are eligible to apply for this initiative,” Dreeshen said in a news release.
Federal agriculture minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said the Olymel closure was another loop in a roller-coaster year.
“Our government has the back of pork producers and will assist them with the extra costs to deal with the associated backlogs,” she said.
“We also care deeply about the health and safety of food production plant workers who are doing essential work and we have implemented a range of emergency safety and worker benefit programs to support their safety and well-being.”
In announcing its reopening, Olymel said it had received the green light from Alberta Health Services and it would continue to work with health authorities to protect worker safety. Three plant workers died during the recent outbreak and about 500 cases have been connected with the Red Deer plant, which employs 1,850 people.
The company said it updated and reinforced health and safety measures during the closure and it was training employees in new safety measures and an action plan developed for reopening.
“Additional staff has already been assigned to monitor and enforce these measures.
“Social distancing protocols have been further adjusted and enhanced, in particular through the addition of physical space. Health and safety meetings between management and union representatives are scheduled daily,” said Olymel.
Alberta’s NDP opposition party objected to the reopening last week and renewed calls for a public inquiry into COVID-19 outbreaks at the Olymel plant as well as previous outbreaks at the Cargill beef processing plant in High River, Alta., and the JBS beef processing plant in Brooks, Alta. Two Cargill workers and one JBS worker died from the virus in 2020.
“There have been outbreaks in meat packing plants all over the country throughout this COVID-19 pandemic,” said NDP leader Rachel Notley.
“However, in other provinces, shutdowns occurred well before the infection numbers got anywhere close to what we’ve been seeing here in Alberta. And as a result it is only in Alberta where there have been tragic fatalities, six to date. This is unacceptable and the UCP must answer for it.”
In an interview, Notley said she has no confidence in the AHS approval for Olymel to reopen.
“Every decision around COVID ultimately comes from (Alberta premier) Jason Kenney and his cabinet. And I say that because he has said that repeatedly. We’ve also seen repeated revelations of where there’s been conversations where AHS or public health has made recommendations to the cabinet and they have not been followed.”
Notley also called on the provincial government to provide support to producers affected by recent processing plant closures.
However, “support for producers cannot rest on a strategy that assumes workers must go to work at risk of dying. That is not support for producers. That’s just immoral,” she said. “We must remember that human lives come first.”
United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, which represents most of the workers at Olymel, also said in an open letter that it does not feel Olymel has taken sufficient safety measures to protect the employees.