Pork sector praised for adjusting to pandemic

Production was four percent higher than 2019, which showed processors’ ability to keep operating despite the challenges

Canada’s pork industry survived the shock, the shutdowns, the disruptions and the costs of the first year of COVID-19 and had a good year — overall.

But expect to see some changes in the post-COVID industry, says a team of University of Guelph researchers.

“The implementation of labour-saving technology … will be spurred by the costs associated with having to slow down line speeds, shut individual plants, have longer breaks between line shifts, increased cleaning costs and lost market opportunities,” write Ken McEwan, Lynn Marchand and Max Zongyuan Shang in a special edition of the Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics.

“Robotics that use central control technology … offer the greatest potential to limit virus spread among employees while maintaining plant efficiencies and ensuring a consistent, safe product.”

However, they doubt there will be a significant move toward increasing the role of smaller processing plants, a supposed solution to the mass outbreaks and disruptions caused by COVID-19 at a number of major plants.

“This approach seems problematic given Canada’s heavy dependency on foreign markets and the need for the pork to be federally inspected,” they conclude.

Canada’s pork industry experienced major plant workforce infection rates that saw a number of slaughter plants shut down, notably in Quebec early in the pandemic and recently in Red Deer.

Pig prices slumped, especially in Western Canada, as slaughter rates initially slowed, and pork backed up before the processing and retail industries managed to get organized for the COVID-19 reality.

But in the end, Canada’s pork production in 2020 was actually four percent higher than in 2019, something that revealed the ability of the processing industry to keep operating despite the challenges and the demand in the world market that kept buying Canadian pork despite the global pandemic.

McEwan, Marchand and Shang praise the industry’s ability to handle the challenges.

“The Canadian swine sector displayed flexibility, resiliency and adjusted to the critical challenges posed by COVID-19 to ensure industry continuation,” they write.

“The supply chain shared information between stakeholders to adjust to provincial, national and international marketing challenges caused by the pandemic in order to meet shifting market demand.”

The key elements for this success were keeping the U.S.-Canada border open, continuing to serve offshore markets and being able to work around labour issues and problems.

Pigs were able to move province to province to find slaughter when there were closures on the U.S. border, which alleviated temporary backlogged situations. Pork was able to flood to the Chinese market, which was undersupplied due to African swine fever devastating the national Chinese herd.

Pork exports from Canada to China were $1.6 billion, which was a 170 percent increase in terms of value and 139 percent increase in volume.

“It is anticipated that China’s pork imports may decrease somewhat from 2020 levels but will still remain strong over the next several months,” says the article.

Canadian feeder pig shipments saw radical swings as COVID-19 unfolded, falling 21 percent in May 2020 but surging by about 21 percent in September compared to summer levels.

“The integration of the Canada/U.S. pork industry enables changes in animal flows depending on market conditions,” the article says.

While many individual players suffered losses, disruptions and challenging situations, in the end Canada’s pork industry came through the initial year of the pandemic showing a lot of strength.

“While COVID-19 had the potential to be extremely disruptive to the Canadian pork supply chain, the sector showed resiliency by adjusting to market changes to ensure industry continuation,” the authors say.

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