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


Canada’s agriculture industry, which is chronically understaffed, warns that increased absenteeism linked to the highly contagious variant of Omicron could put strain on the country’s food production systems.

Already there are signs of fatigue. A Quebec slaughterhouse has chosen to euthanize thousands of chickens that could not be processed this week, blaming increased COVID-19 infections among employees as well as federal delays in processing requests from foreign workers temporary staff for its prolonged staff shortage.

Mushroom farms across the country face ‘unprecedented’ levels of absenteeism that threaten the very survival of some operators, says Janet Krayden, labor specialist at the Canadian Mushroom Growers Association .

And the western Canadian beef industry is closely monitoring the condition of Alberta’s large meat processing plants, which so far remain operational in this latest wave of viruses, but which have been the site of some of the country’s biggest disease outbreaks in 2020.

Mary Robinson, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said there are very few aspects of food production that are not vulnerable to labor shortages and disruption related to COVID.

“Dairy farms are a concern. Cows need to be fed, need to be milked, need to be cared for, ”she said. “The hog industry is a concern – you can’t stop a sow from farrowing. You’re going to bring forth thousands and thousands of animals, you can’t slow it down.

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

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

“It’s almost four percent of total industry sales that we’ve lost,” said Robinson. “These are lost opportunities for the whole country. “

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

But Krayden said federal processing of work permits has slowed at a breakneck pace during COVID-19, with some farms waiting up to seven months for approvals. She said job vacancies at some mushroom farms are now approaching 40 percent.

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

In 2020, COVID-19 outbreaks at meat packing plants in Alberta sickened hundreds of workers and killed four. The outbreaks also caused temporary plant closures that left western Canadian beef slaughter capacity at about 25 percent of normal.

Cargill Inc. and JBS Canada said Thursday that their production capacity was not affected during the Omicron wave. JBS spokesperson Cameron Bruett said the Brooks, Alta. The plant has not seen a significant increase in the number of cases, while Cargill spokesman Daniel Sullivan said the number of cases at the company’s facilities in High River, Alta. “Tend to fluctuate with community numbers”.

Bob Lowe, president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, said packaging factories have implemented numerous safety precautions since that first deadly wave and the two companies have staged successful vaccination campaigns for workers.

He added that the decision of some provinces, including Alberta, to reduce mandatory isolation periods to five days for workers vaccinated positive for COVID should help reduce the pressure on packaging plants.

Still, Lowe said the industry is watching very closely. Plant closures in the spring of 2020 resulted in a large backlog of ready-to-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 a day paying to feed and keep cattle that would normally be ready for slaughter.

“It’s a bottleneck if something happens, as we’ve found out,” Lowe said. “So we are watching him very closely and just keeping our fingers crossed. “

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

In some cases, he said, the increase in the number of cases leads to reduced production speeds.

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

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

Amanda Stephenson, The Canadian Press

Coronavirus Agriculture

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