Hog producers who deliver to Olymel are hopeful the Red Deer plant will reopen sometime this week.
The plant, which can slaughter 45,000 hogs per week when in full operation, temporarily closed Feb. 15 due to widespread worker illness from COVID-19. It had already slowed its slaughter capacity on Feb. 5 due to high worker absenteeism and to limit traffic in and out of the plant.
Alberta Pork executive director Darcy Fitzgerald said today that Olymel could open as early as Wednesday, although he awaits confirmation.
“There’s a few producers who have been kind of given the word to stand by,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s a sit and wait game right now. Hopefully this week we can get the plant back up and running again and then just start to work our way through that backlog of pigs that are waiting to get in.”
Those hopes might be premature. Richard Vigneault of Olymel corporate communications said late Monday that a reopening date has not been set and the company continues to work with Alberta Health Services and Occupational Health and Safety in determining when it can reopen.
Alberta Health Services reported Feb. 26 that 500 cases of COVID-19 were linked to the plant. Two more people have died in connection with the outbreak, bringing the total to three. Dead are Henry De Leon, 50 and Darwin Doloque, 35. The third fatality, a woman, was not identified by Alberta Health.
Many hog producers who usually ship to Olymel in Red Deer have sought alternative marketing solutions during the closure.
“We’ve shipped a lot of pigs to other places though, at a significant loss to a lot of producers, but at least they found a home,” said Fitzgerald.
Both Alberta Pork and Olymel are working to get a handle on the number of slaughter-ready pigs being held. Fitzgerald estimates it at 90,000 to 130,000 head.
As the plant closure enters its third week, Fitzgerald said Alberta Pork is talking with government officials to see what assistance can be provided to affected hog producers.
“We don’t know what the details would be yet, but the provincial government (and) federal government are talking to see what kind of AgriRecovery program they can put into place to help out producers,” he said.
“The precedent is already there for the beef cattle set-aside program that happened here in Alberta. Also there was a program put together in Ontario for a feed support for producers that had to hold pigs for quite some time (during slaughter plant issues in that province), just to help cover off some of that cost.”
Fitzgerald said Olymel has been working to help producers with marketing as well. The company has its own hog operation and announced it would ship its pigs to its facilities in the United States during the Red Deer closure to ease pressure.
“What Olymel did by moving its pigs elsewhere… it took the hit on transportation costs and it has emptied out quite a few barns by moving pigs into the U.S. as well. By doing that, it allows the independent and colony producers to come into the plant quicker.
“Other processors haven’t done that in the past. They’ve taken their own pigs first.”