Meat packers given leeway on when to close, idle operations
In Cargill Inc’s High River, Alta. plant, supplier of more than one-third of Canada’s beef, 391 workers were sick with coronavirus when the company suspended operations, according to provincial health officials.
But Maple Leaf Foods decided to idle a poultry plant for eight days, in Brampton, Ont., after just three workers were infected.
In Canada’s fight against the pandemic, public health officials are mostly leaving decisions on closing meat plants to the companies, even though the authorities have power to do so. Alberta Health Services (AHS), for example, could close a plant with unsafe conditions, spokesman Tom McMillan told Reuters.
The impact of such decisions extends beyond plant walls. They are at the heart of Alberta’s two largest community outbreaks, and could foreshadow dilemmas likely to emerge as other industries restart.
Canada’s stance contrasts a more active U.S. political role with infected plants, as close-quarters work has led workers in numerous North American plants to fall ill or walk off the job. President Donald Trump ordered meat plants on Tuesday to stay open, and state and local officials earlier pushed successfully for some to close, including Smithfield Foods’ South Dakota slaughterhouse.
Jon Nash, President of Cargill Protein North America, told Reuters that Cargill reduced production at its Alberta plant on April 13 and remained open before closing entirely a week later to avoid wasting food, and because ranchers needed a market for cattle.
Factors outside the Cargill plant, such as crowded households and carpooling, contributed to the spread in High River, health officials said.
Cargill said on Wednesday that High River would resume reduced production on May 4 after a two-week closure for cleaning and additional safety measures.