By Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press
CALGARY — Workers are to return Monday to a beef processing plant south of Calgary that was closed for two weeks because of a COVID-19 outbreak.
Cargill said in a statement Wednesday that it will restart its High River facility with one shift and bolstered safety measures.
The company is limiting access to the plant to no more than two people per car, with one sitting in the front and one in the back. It is also providing buses with protective barriers to reduce the need for carpooling.
Barriers have been added in bathrooms and lockers have been reassigned to allow for enough spacing. Cargill said it has also done a deep cleaning during the closure.
There are 821 cases of COVID-19 tied to the plant and one worker has died.
Alberta chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw said local Alberta Health Services officials have done on-site inspections and have been assured it’s safe.
“Alberta Health Services has been working very, very hard to phone every single worker at the Cargill plant to make sure that they have the information that they need about the practices that will keep them safe and prevent exposure in any setting that they’re in.”
The JBS Canada beef plant in Brooks, Alta., has been the site of another major COVID-19 outbreak, with 276 cases and one death among workers.
It continues to operate, but at reduced capacity.
A group of Brooks residents with loved ones working at JBS have started an online petition calling for a two-week closure and an in-person inspection.
“There’s a lot of fear. There’s a sense that the precautions are not good enough,” said Benyat Zeki, one of the organizers with Second Generation United.
Zeki said the fear is not limited to workers. Entire households are scared of getting sick.
She said the workers, most of whom are temporary foreign workers or immigrants, don’t have a lot of political clout and their concerns too often get overlooked.
“We’re advocating for our families who tried to provide a better life for us. We’re trying to protect theirs.”
JBS said it has implemented a number of safety measures, such as temperature tests, mandatory face masks and increased cleaning.
“We will endeavour to keep our facilities open, but we will not operate a facility if we do not believe it is safe or if absenteeism levels result in our inability to safely operate,” spokesman Cameron Bruett said in a statement.
Alberta NDP labour critic Christina Gray said in a statement that JBS should be closed immediately and that Cargill should not be reopened until everyone is satisfied it’s safe.
“And when the provincial state of emergency is over, a full public inquiry should be launched so that those who have failed the workers at these plants can be held accountable,” she said.
The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association said the Cargill and JBS plants together handle 70 per cent of Canada’s beef supply and the reduced processing capacity has caused economic hardship for ranchers.
Mike von Massow, an associate professor at the University of Guelph, said industry players will be thinking about how to avoid such bottlenecks in future crises.
“What would make producers more comfortable with the situation is if we had a little bit broader base of processing,” he said.
“So that means both more capacity and more options so that if an individual plant closes, it’s not as disruptive to the markets.”
McDonald’s Canada has said it would start importing beef to supplement its Canadian supply.
Livestock industry analyst Kevin Grier said even as cattle ranchers and feedlot operators have seen their margins pinched, a price benchmark for U.S. wholesale beef has skyrocketed.
The USDA choice cut-out averaged US$272 per 100 pounds last week, a $41 jump from the previous week. Grier said ordinarily just a $5 increase would be enough to raise eyebrows.
He said grocery chains will be reluctant to pass that increase along to consumers right away, but shoppers shouldn’t expect any enticing meat deals in their weekly flyer.
If there are any shortages, he said, it’s unlikely to be due to the problems at meat plants.
“It’s going to be up to us,” he said. “If we want to plunder and pillage like we did in March, then we’re going to have a problem. If we don’t, we’re going to have tight supplies, but certainly manageable.”