Ag vulnerable to absenteeism

The most pressing issue facing Canada’s agri-food sector during the COVID-19 pandemic is likely absenteeism within the supply chain, says policy analyst Al Mussell.

Livestock industries such as chicken and hogs would be among the most vulnerable, given the protocols around their movement, he said.

Biosecurity dictates that once hogs, for example, leave the barn they don’t come back. But what if the processing plant has closed because employees are sick or inspectors are sick, or there simply isn’t room for those hogs that day, Mussell said.

If there were more, smaller plants it would be different but the industry doesn’t work that way.

“With livestock, particularly broilers, turkeys, hogs, this will back up pretty quick,” Mussell said. “If it’s a dairy plant you can dump milk, at some cost. If it’s eggs, the eggs can be disposed of if there’s a grading station or an egg breaking plant, but again at some cost.”

He said he thinks of cattle as having a wider marketing window but producers of that commodity should also be concerned.

Mussell, research lead at Agri-Food Economic Systems in Guelph, Ont., said agricultural disaster preparedness has focused on things like livestock disease and natural disasters, not on the movement of people.

“When you look at what we’ve invested in emergency planning it’s not real well-suited to this,” he said.

The Canadian agricultural industry is starting from a good place, he said, because there is integrity in the system, but these are new risks. Coping with them means “getting it right” because the system is changing hour by hour.

Mussell suggested the processing industry seriously start thinking about cross-training people so they can step into positions quickly. He said that could even happen across companies that typically might compete for employees. However, people with certain qualifications might be in high demand and these are exceptional circumstances.

Truckers were already in short supply so that link in the chain could be affected. And grocery retailers tend not to stockpile product, which could mean another disruption.

On the farm side, this translates to a potential lack of qualified people to spray, or deliver fuel or livestock feed, he said.

He expects to see people stepping up to help affected farmers get crops in the ground, similar to what happens when there are accidents or medical emergencies and neighbours rally.

Mussell said that agricultural organizations or rural municipalities could help connect those who need help with those willing to offer it.

Foreign workers will be allowed into the country but he said he worries that with border closures that may not go smoothly.

In the longer term, he sees logistics concerns such as the lack of containers, ships and dockworkers to meet export demands. Southeast Asia and China still are “desperately short” of meat but the logistics to get it there will be more complex.

Consumer behaviour, both at home and internationally, will also affect demand.

After the initial panic-buying stops, there will be reduced demand and fewer grocery store visits to some degree, said the policy note. Restaurants are limited to take-out, which could lead to an excess foodservice inventory that might be redirected to retail.

Mussell said Canada also imports significant products such as coffee, orange juice and feed ingredients.

“We need to be aware of the tendency, in times of crisis, to satisfy one’s own needs first,” the note said.

Mussell said governments should designate the agri-food system as a critical industry that must be supported throughout the pandemic response. Meat inspection services should be prioritized.

“As necessary, inspection services should be prepared to drop non-essential compliance verification and enforcement activities that do not have immediate impact on food safety,” the note authors said.

Crop inputs should be cleared to move quickly through the border, and all plants should be working at capacity.

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