Update: Beef plant to reopen after temporary halt

Operations at the Harmony Beef processing plant in Balzac, Alta., were expected to be back on track March 31 after a stoppage March 27 related to COVID-19.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency stopped work at the plant after a worker tested positive for the virus. Original: CFIA inspectors refused to continue until concerns over potential human spread of the virus were addressed. Update: CFIA says the organization “made the decision to not allow the inspectors to enter the work site while the health risks were assessed. There were no refusals to work by individual inspectors or veterinarians at the facility.”

A CFIA spokesperson confirmed that officials with the CFIA, Harmony Beef and Alberta Health Services did a walk-through of the plant on March 29 to address concerns, and the CFIA then expected to have slaughter inspection back in place March 31.

The spokesperson said the stoppage had no impact on processing or export certification on the meat from the plant.

“The fabrication side is operating fully today (March 30) and we are going to be in full production tomorrow morning,” said Harmony spokesperson Crosbie Cotton.

“We have a full commitment that the inspectors will be at work tomorrow morning (March 31).”

Cotton said the plant, which has a slaughter capacity of 750 head daily, has enough staff to function as usual, despite several workers having to self-isolate as a result of contact with the infected person.

Harmony has implemented stringent measures to limit risk of infection by plant personnel, he added.

“I think we have an industry leading process. Every employee is checked at the entrance every day, temperature checks and for symptoms. We have hired and brought in extra sanitizing groups.

“The cafeterias are sanitized after every break, the locker rooms after every break, and every day the plant itself is fully sanitized with additional steps taken during the day. We are also implementing plastic dividers in the cafeteria and we have staggered shifts to make sure not everybody is arriving at the same time.”

Truck drivers delivering or collecting loads are also checked at the gate and do not have contact with plant workers, said Cotton.

Asked about the temporary plant closure on March 27, provincial chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw said the situation did not present a significant risk to the public and that all co-workers of the person with COVID-19 had been contacted and told to self-isolate.

COVID-19 is not a food-borne illness so that was not a concern, added Hinshaw.

Also on March 27 Alberta premier Jason Kenney expressed disappointment with the CFIA inspectors who he said had refused to go back to work after the plant worker tested positive.

“Our understanding is the Canadian Food Inspection Agency believes that the plant has been cleaned, all the protocols have been followed and that the plant is safe to reopen for production but that some individual CFIA inspectors have refused to go back to the job,” Kenny said March 27.

“We are seeing a huge increase in demand for those products and we cannot have the CFIA effectively imperilling our entire livestock industry by having people refusing to go on the job.”

Kenney added that the work of employees in the public service is “more important now than ever” and they should stay on the job despite anxiety over the virus.

Update: CFIA, April 3, said in a statement to The Western Producer, “Harmony Beef made the decision to close the establishment.  Harmony Beef resumed slaughter operations on March 31. There was no slaughter inspection provided on March 27 and 30 while the company worked with Alberta Health Services and the CFIA to safely resume slaughter as soon as possible after a company employee tested positive for COVID-19.”

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