January 10, 2022

Canada's food production under threat from Omicron COVID-19 variant


Canada's chronically understaffed agriculture industry is warning that increased absenteeism related to the highly contagious Omicron COVID-19 variant could severely stress the country's food production systems.

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

Western Canada's beef industry is closely monitoring the status of Alberta's large meat processing plants, which so far remain operational in the latest wave of COVID-19, but which were the site of some of the country's largest outbreaks 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 4% 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.

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% of normal capacity.

Both Cargill Inc. and JBS Canada said that their production capacity has been unaffected during the Omicron wave. JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett said the company's Brooks, Alberta 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, Alberta. "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 the first wave, and both companies have organised 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 LP, which operates approximately 40 hog and chicken processing plants in Canada, is seeing an increase in COVID-19 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.

- The Canadian Press