Red Deer hog plant starts reopening today

The Olymel pork processing plant in Red Deer is resuming slaughter operations today after temporarily closing for 14 days due to a COVID-19 outbreak among workers.

Olymel said it has received the green light from Alberta Health Services (AHS) to reopen the plant, which it will do gradually by starting slaughter today and cutting room operations tomorrow.

“Reopening can occur because Olymel management and the regulators are satisfied that employees can return to the plant safely. The company will continue to work with AHS and OHS (Occupational Health and Safety) in order to fight the spread of the coronavirus. Olymel will also ensure that there is a strong collaboration and commitment amongst its workforce to prevent the spread,” the company said in a news release.

Some 500 cases of COVID have been connected to the plant and three workers have died from the virus. In its news release, Olymel offered condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of workers. It also said most employees who had the virus since the outbreak began have recovered.

“Alberta Health Services authorities have, however, specified that the coronavirus is still spreading and that everyone is at risk of contracting it, whether in the community or otherwise,” said Olymel.

“Although 1,370 employees at the Red Deer plant have been tested since Jan, 1, 2021, AHS experts will be on site when operations resume and will offer rapid testing to anyone who has not tested positive and wishes to be tested.”

Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley today called on the government and Olymel to delay reopening the plant, which she said is now the deadliest meat packing plant outbreak in Canada.

“There have been outbreaks in meat packing plants all over the country throughout this COVID-19 pandemic. 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.… This is unacceptable and the UCP must answer for it.”

Notley said a survey of union workers at the Red Deer plant indicate 75 percent of them are nervous or scared to return to work, fearing risk of illness.

The temporary shutdown of the plant has forced hog producers to make other plans for market-ready animals and has created a backlog estimated at 90,000 to 130,000 head.

Olymel reported that it is in contact with farmers to plan a gradual resumption of deliveries.

Notley said her party understands the dilemma.

“I understand that slowdowns or shutdowns of these meat packing plants jeopardizes the livelihood of meat producers. We get that. And that’s why it is absolutely important that the government of Alberta step up and provide support to these meat producers to compensate them for the losses that these shutdowns or slowdowns cause,” she said.

“But here’s the thing. That support to the industry should be provided by the government. It is not something that needs to be provided through workers literally being compelled to put their lives at risk. That is an immoral choice, an immoral plan and it must stop.”

Notley renewed her party’s call for an immediate public inquiry into the outbreak at the Red Deer Olymel plant as well as those that occurred last year at the Cargill beef processing plant in High River, Alta., and the JBS beef processing plant in Brooks, Alta.

Contact barb.glen@producer.com

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