What happens if a COVID-19 case hits the processing sector?

Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) James Vincent Wardhaugh

With coronavirus cases on the rise, the federal and provincial governments have increased risk mitigation measures to slow down the spread of the virus. Farmers and ranchers are a relatively independent and often secluded, so the impact of any quarantine would be limited on daily operations during planting or calving. The business risk to agriculture is more on the external decisions by the supply and value chain in relation to how individual companies deal with the virus.

One of the biggest risks to the meat sector is if a COVID-19 case is found among staff at one of our major packing plants. Although this “what if” is hypothetical at this point, it is not improbable.

RealAgriculture reached out to the two largest beef processors in Canada, Cargill and JBS, for comment, but has yet to get any response on what the plan is for a potential outbreak.

Based on how offices have dealt with the matter over the last two weeks in white collar settings, if an employee tests positive for the virus, the office is closed and all employees are isolated or self-quarantined based on their risk level and symptoms. (Find out more regarding Health Canada’s community based measures.)

A packing plant, although very mechanized, still involves a heavy component of manual labour throughout the slaughter and packaging line. One of our main questions to Cargill, JBS, the Canadian Meat Council, and North American Meat Institute is: would a Covid-19 case at a plant trigger that plant being totally or partially shut down to mitigate health risks of the staff?

Under the definition of essential services in the context of labour negotiations, a packing plant does not seem to make the list according to the Government of Canada website. Health Canada and Agriculture and Agri-food Canada are preparing answers to our questions at this time.

In my opinion, based on what we have seen in other workplace situations, it’s hard for me to believe that the consequences of a COVID-19 case at a packing plant would not be a shutdown for quarantine of all employees in the plant. When we are talking about companies like Cargill and Maple Leaf they will be thinking about the health of employees first and packing profits second, but what does that mean for the supply chain?

The supply chain impact of a two-week plant shut down are dramatic considering the costs on producers to feed livestock longer as lift dates are pushed back. The pork and beef sector has already been hit this year by slow rail movement due to railway blockades, a steep market sell-off of lean hogs and live cattle, and a challenged China port system due to worker shortages as COVID-19 swept the country.

RealAgriculture reached out to the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and the Canadian Meat Council and received no comment on this matter. We will update this story if further clarification is provided by stakeholders.

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Categories: Cattle / COVID-19 / Livestock / Opinion / Pork / Poultry