Food processor assistance rolled out

The first spending round of a $77.5 million fund to help food processors is being rolled out by the federal government.

On Sept. 4, Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced 32 projects were approved for up to $10.54 million in federal funding to help mitigate the impacts of COVID-19.

Money, first announced in May, is aimed at helping companies buy reusable personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitation stations and protective barriers, as well as measures to enable social distancing and additional training.

According to the federal government, the remaining money in the fund will be going to projects still being assessed by Agriculture Canada.

“We expect to have the full fund committed by the end of the month,” said Bibeau during a Sept. 4 interview.

Representatives from Food and Beverage Canada have previously estimated that the cost of adapting to accommodate workers during the pandemic will be around $800 million.

During a May meeting of the standing committee on agriculture, executive director Kathleen Sullivan said the pandemic had created a huge problem for the industry and requires significant capital investment.

“We are facing a new normal of extraordinary cost pressures that we need to address somehow either by means of government support or by food price increases,” she said. “We didn’t build our food plants to accommodate social distancing, we built them to accommodate food safety.”

Telling the committee that cost was “impossible” to pass onto consumers, especially given its magnitude, she called for policy changes to assist her membership.

“The ongoing pressures that we’re facing are undoubtedly going to destroy some companies and drive them into bankruptcy,” she said.

Bibeau said her government will “always stay open to respond to the needs of our producers and processors, but let’s proceed with this first and see.”

During the series of committee meetings, which featured stakeholders responding to the government’s plans to support the industry during the pandemic, several other groups expressed concern over the amount of money available in the $77.5 million Emergency Processing Fund, or the conditions attached to the money.

The Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council estimated more than $87 million was spent just in March and April to protect workers and has raised concern over eligibility requirements calling for reimbursement only to companies buying reusable, rather than disposable, masks.

“We can’t ask for reimbursement on disposable masks; it has to be reusable masks, and that will add to the costs,” said Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council chair Joël Cormier in May, noting his workers require disposable masks. “We’re trying to protect workers here, masks are absolutely needed. Washable ones are not good enough in this sector.”

Bibeau said the Emergency Processing Fund wasn’t specifically for masks, but said there was other funding, some coming from provinces, to assist businesses with buying that type of equipment.

“This program was targeting the improvement of the infrastructure, the work space, to make it safe,” she said.

Carla Ventin, senior vice-president of Food and Consumer Products of Canada, told committee members the $77.5 million would fall short of properly supporting the industry.

“We are really concerned that the $77.5 million will not even cover the costs already incurred by the primary meat processors,” said Ventin.

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