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Highly contagious variant could stress Canadian food production, farm groups say

Outbreaks at Alberta meat-packing plants in 2020 sickened hundreds and killed 4
Dairy cows are shown in a barn on a farm in Eastern Ontario on Wednesday, April 19, 2017. Farm groups say they’re fearful the highly contagious Omicron variant could severely stress Canadian food production. Dairy farms, greenhouses, and mushroom farms are some of the sectors that could be most vulnerable to interruptions if large numbers of employees need to stay home sick. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Canada’s chronically understaffed agriculture industry is warning that increased absenteeism related to the highly contagious Omicron variant could severely stress this country’s food production systems.

Already, there are signs of strain. A slaughterhouse in Quebec opted to euthanize thousands of chickens that couldn’t be processed this week, blaming rising COVID-19 infections among employees as well as federal delays processing temporary foreign worker applications for its protracted staff shortage.

Mushroom farms across the country are dealing with “unprecedented” levels of absenteeism that threaten some operators’ very survival, according to Janet Krayden, workforce specialist with The Canadian Mushroom Growers’ Association.

And Western Canada’s beef industry is closely monitoring the status of Alberta’s large meat processing plants, which so far remain operational in this latest wave of the virus, but which were the site of some of the country’s largest outbreaks of illness in 2020.

Mary Robinson, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said there are very few aspects of food production that aren’t vulnerable to COVID-related labour shortages and interruptions.

“Dairy farms are a concern. The cows have to be fed, have to be milked, have to be cared for,” she said. “The pork industry is a concern — you can’t stop a sow from farrowing. You’re going to have thousands and thousands of animals being born, you can’t slow that down.”

The rural, isolated nature of farm jobs and the physicality of the work are two of the reasons behind a chronic, long-standing labour shortage in Canadian agriculture. In 2014, primary agricultural producers lost out on $1.4-billion in potential sales due to the inability to find workers, Robinson said.

That number rose to $2.9 billion in 2020, in large part due to the impact of COVID-19 on the industry’s workforce challenges, she added.

“That’s almost four per cent of the sector’s total sales that we’ve lost,” Robinson said. “Those are lost opportunities for the entire country.”

Due to difficulties attracting local workers, the agriculture industry has long relied on temporary foreign workers and immigrants to fill positions at feedlots, greenhouses, and processing plants.

But Krayden said federal processing of work permits has slowed to a crawl during COVID-19, with some farms waiting up to seven months to get approvals. She said job vacancies at some mushroom farms now approach 40 per cent.

“It makes it very difficult for any business, and in particular, our food system to survive,” Krayden said. “Unless governments put some long-term strategies in place so we can continue to function and grow food, we will begin to see less and less Canadian-grown food on the shelves.”

In 2020, outbreaks of COVID-19 at meat-packing plants in Alberta sickened hundreds of workers and resulted in four deaths. The outbreaks also caused temporary plant shutdowns that left Western Canada’s beef slaughter capacity at about 25 per cent of normal.

Both Cargill Inc. and JBS Canada said Thursday that their production capacity has been unaffected during the Omicron wave. JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett said the company’s Brooks, Alta. plant has not seen a material increase in cases, while Cargill spokesman Daniel Sullivan said case numbers at the company’s facility at High River, Alta. “tend to ebb and flow with community numbers.”

Bob Lowe, president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, said packing plants have put in many safety precautions since that deadly first wave, and both companies have organized successful vaccination campaigns for workers.

He added the move by some provinces, including Alberta, to reduce mandatory isolation periods for COVID-positive vaccinated workers to five days should help reduce the strain on packing plants.

Still, Lowe said the industry is watching very closely. The plant shutdowns in spring of 2020 led to a major backlog of ready-for-market cattle that suddenly had nowhere to go. According to industry estimates, at the height of the crisis, Canadian feedlot operators were losing $500,000 per day paying to feed and retain cattle that normally would be ready to ship to slaughter.

“It’s a bottleneck if something happens, as we found out,” Lowe said. “So we’re watching it pretty closely, and just crossing our fingers.”

Quebec-based Olymel L.P., which operates approximately 40 hog and chicken processing plants in Canada, is seeing an increase in COVID cases among its employees, said spokesman Richard Vigneault.

In some cases, he said, rising case numbers are causing reduced production speeds.

If the Omicron contamination continues to escalate, it is not impossible that there will be some disruption in our operations, but we are not there yet,” Vigneault said in an email.

He added Olymel is working with the public health authorities in Quebec to develop a safe return-to-work protocol for asymptomatic contact cases among employees.

Amanda Stephenson, The Canadian Press