Covid found at beef, hog plants in Alberta

Cases at Olymel pork facility in Red Deer include one death while Cargill beef workers in High River are also infected. | Getty Images

Cases at Olymel pork facility in Red Deer include one death while Cargill beef workers in High River are also infected

Alberta meat processing plants are again the sites of outbreaks of COVID-19 among workers.

Alberta Health has reported that 156 cases are linked to the Olymel pork processing plant in Red Deer as of Feb. 5, with 79 of them active, and one man in his 30s died from the virus on Jan. 28. The plant employs about 1,850 people.

The Cargill beef processing plant in High River, Alta., had six employees recently test positive for the virus, according to Cargill spokesperson Daniel Sullivan. Alberta Health Services said there were seven active cases as of Feb. 6. The affected workers are in isolation and receiving medical care.

The Cargill plant employs about 2,000 people and was the site of a larger outbreak last year in which more than 900 workers were infected and two died.

At Olymel in Red Deer, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 401, which represents most of the plant workers, has called for a two-week shutdown of the plant to allow for a deep clean.

But Olymel’s chief of corporate communications, Richard Vigneault, said Feb. 8 that is unlikely at this time.

“We have no plan to shut down the plant, no plan to shut down the operations,” he said. “Now we are trying to, with the help of everyone, including the union, we’re trying to keep the situation under control. There could be slowdowns in the production because of people absent.”

Vigneault said the Red Deer plant capacity is 45,000 animals daily but it is not running at capacity now due to employee absences that include those who are ill and also those who were in contact with workers who tested positive and are now in isolation.

The plant had few cases of COVID-19 among its workers in the early months of the pandemic. However, in November a number of cases surfaced, at which time Alberta Health Services undertook a major testing program of employees.

Vigneault said there was a lull in cases after that until Jan. 20, when the number of cases rose.

“We took all the means necessary to keep the situation of spreading under control, working very closely with AHS (Alberta Health Services.) We have dozens of sanitary measures enforced since last March.”

Olymel has also had COVID-19 outbreaks at two of its Quebec plants in recent months.

Calls to Alberta Pork regarding the effects of a slowdown or temporary closure of the plant were not returned in time for publication.

At Cargill in High River, Sullivan emphasized the enhanced safety measures undertaken at the plant due to the pandemic.

“We continue to learn how to help slow the spread of the virus and are working with Alberta Health Services to add safety measures as they become available to safeguard our valued co-workers,” he said in an email.

“We are working with AHS to offer testing to employees who have been identified as having close contact. We also continue to work closely with health officials to ensure effective prevention, cleaning and quarantine protocols are followed within our facilities and beyond.”

A class-action lawsuit against Cargill has been proposed in connection with last year’s outbreak at the High River plant. The suit alleges inadequate safety measures for workers but the matter has not been tested in court.

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