Meat plant improvements called best option for worker safety

Larger plants have arisen due to their efficiency and resulting ability to provide food at a lower price. Smaller processing plants, particularly for beef and pork, don’t have the same advantage. | File photo

Academic says small-scale meat processors most effective way to improve worker safety, but the system is impractical

Consumer desire for inexpensive food led to creation of large meat-processing plants and that led to conditions ideal for spread of COVID-19.

Options to mitigate future outbreaks of COVID or any other infectious disease are threefold, according to University of Manitoba agri-business professor Jared Carlberg:

  • Develop a system of small-scale meat processing facilities.
  • Develop alternative ownership structures for meat plants.
  • Improve safety measures in existing plants.

The first option has been tried in the past with limited success. The second option has potential but there are no successful examples in the meat industry. As for the third, Canadian processing facilities have been working since spring to improve their safety methods and protocols.

Carlberg, an agricultural economist, gave his thoughts on the options during a webinar organized last month by the University of Calgary School of Public Policy. His soon-to-be-published paper, Mega-Scale Agri-Food Processing Facilities in the age of COVID-19, is a case study of the Canadian beef processing sector compiled during the early days of the pandemic.

Specific to minimizing disease spread in larger facilities, Carlberg said smaller sites would lower the numbers.

“If we had fewer people working in smaller facilities, we’d probably have more people working overall but fewer people in any given facility. So if a disease outbreak were to strike any particular facility, it would mean there would be fewer people, in theory at least, affected in any given facility.”

However, larger plants have arisen due to their efficiency and resulting ability to provide food at a lower price. Smaller processing plants, particularly for beef and pork, don’t have the same advantage.

The idea of more small plants “has been something the cattle industry’s been trying to do … for almost as long as I can remember. It’s been difficult to achieve in most cases.”

Newer facilities could conceivably be more mechanized, requiring fewer people, said Carlberg.

The downside of that is that smaller communities with smaller plants would want good employment and more taxpayers. As well, with larger plants continuing to operate, it is difficult for smaller ones to attract cattle.

As it stands, 75 percent of Canada’s federally inspected beef processing capacity is in Alberta, even though Alberta has only 40 percent of the domestic cattle herd. However, the province also has the largest cattle feeding sector so it makes economic sense for plants to be nearby.

Carlberg said farmer-owned facilities, perhaps as new generation co-operatives, are “a good idea in theory” and have worked well in other sectors such as the ethanol industry. In the United States, he said, few new generation co-operatives survived the first wave of establishment. There are few if any success stories in the meat-packing sector.

Improvements to existing large-scale meat-processing facilities are the most realistic option, he said, and much work has been done even since he compiled data for his paper in spring.

“Improving existing facilities is probably the best bet that we have and where things have gone and will go.”

Carlberg noted heartbreaking statistics on illness in large plants, with many workers sick and several who died from COVID-19.

“Not to insinuate fault on anyone’s part, but just, if we only knew then what we know now, we could have saved lives then and protected the health of the workers and the public to a little better extent.”

Temperature checks, high quality protective equipment, barriers between workers and limiting touch points could all have helped in early days of the pandemic, and plants have put all of that in place.

Carlberg said labour standards plus the plants’ own desires to limit turnover have dictated various safety measures.

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