Canadian meat processing industry awaits vaccines for staff, as American counterparts make progress

Photo courtesy of JBS USA

COVID-19 has impacted each and every economic sector, and the protein processing industry is no exception. From plant shut downs, to slow downs, to outbreaks amid plant staff, and even deaths from the virus, the meat processing value chain has been hard hit by this pandemic.

With vaccines now a reality, meat packers through the North American Meat Institute and Canadian Meat Council have been encouraging governments to make meat plant workers a high priority for the vaccine.

JBS recently announced that one third of its U.S. workforce will be vaccinated with at least one shot by the end of the week of March 15th.

“We are pleased to see so many of our essential team members having the opportunity to be vaccinated and choosing to do so,” says Andre Nogueira, chief executive officer, JBS USA. “While we are making good progress, there is much work left to be done. We thank state Governors and other local officials for prioritizing our workforce and strongly urge our partners in other states to make sure essential food workers are given timely access to the vaccine. They have shown up to work every day to help keep the country fed during the pandemic and deserve to be vaccinated as soon as possible.”

JBS USA and Pilgrim’s are assisting with vaccination efforts by leveraging company occupational health staff, coordinating logistics, and partnering with third-party health organizations to ensure medical professionals, nurses, and resources are available to effectively administer vaccinations, the company says.

This vaccine-access disparity between north and south of the border, and even within the same company, could put Canada’s processing industry at risk. In Ontario for example, those who work in agriculture or cannot work from home (including plant workers) are listed under Phase 2 for vaccine access. That phase does not begin until April.

When reached for comment, Cargill said that it could not share what percentage of its workforce had been vaccinated.

“I can share that our response throughout this pandemic is guided by our values – putting people first and doing the right thing. We have stood strong in our unwavering commitment to protect the health and safety of our employees, and we’ll apply the same principles when it comes to vaccinations. We are working with local health authorities and medical experts to ensure our employees have access to vaccines when they are available, without jeopardizing the prioritization of essential healthcare workers and others at extreme high risk. We will prioritize our front-line workers whenever we can, as they continue to work tirelessly to keep our food system going strong,” a representative says.

Cargill is offering employees an additional four hours of paid leave (two hours per dose) to get the vaccine and is promoting vaccination to its workforce, the company says.

No numbers in relation to the Canadian JBS employees were made public to RealAgriculture, but a company spokesperson did issue the following statement:

We are working with local health authorities in how we can support the vaccine roll out plan for JBS team members and the community. Alberta recently announced that meat processing workers will be considered for vaccination in between April and June. Access to vaccines has been a challenge for the entire country [Canada] but we stand ready to assist and help in whatever way we can once vaccines are available.

In January, JBS USA and Pilgrim’s announced a $100 incentive for all team members in the United States and Canada who choose to be vaccinated, with the goal of encouraging maximum voluntary participation. The companies have also been promoting multi-lingual internal education campaigns to emphasize the safety, efficacy and importance of receiving the vaccine.

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