The decision to close a processing plant as it relates to COVID-19 infection of staff is a complicated one. Food processing plants have strict protocols and clear guidance on food safety issues, but the advent of a human disease pandemic is a new territory for all — processors included.
Ultimately, the decision to close a plant is made by individual companies, as has been seen with both Olymel and Maple Leaf. That said, a plant cannot continue to process animals without the required health inspectors from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). If inspectors are unavailable or refuse to enter a plant, animals cannot be processed — effectively shutting the plant down.
The Canadian government says that the CFIA is committed to maintaining inspection oversight in federal meat establishments, and is working directly with them to continue to secure the appropriate number of inspectors to ensure food safety.
“The CFIA is also committed to protecting the health and safety of its employees while maintaining critical inspection services. When the CFIA is informed that an employee of an establishment tests positive for COVID-19, the Agency works directly with provincial health authorities and the establishment management to provide a safe and healthy workplace for its employees,” a government official says.
The government says that, to date, there has been one instance of CFIA temporarily not providing slaughter inspection services after an employee of an establishment tested positive for COVID-19. CFIA decided not to allow the inspectors to enter the worksite while the health risks were being assessed. There were no refusals to work by individual inspectors or veterinarians at the facility, and once the assessment of the risk to CFIA employees was completed in conjunction with Alberta Health Services and the company, slaughter inspection services resumed. The activities outside of slaughter, such as packaging and exports, were not affected.
As plants close — even temporarily — it creates a backlog of market-ready livestock with nowhere to go. So far, reports are that chicken destined for the temporarily closed Maple Leaf plant at Brampton, Ont., was diverted to other Maple Leaf facilities. Many Ontario hogs destined for the Olymel plant in Quebec have been sent to the U.S. for slaughter.
But, as plants in the U.S. close, the spectre of “depopulating” barns or groups of livestock looms. If mass culls of livestock are required, will there be compensation for producers? The government says that compensation as a result of voluntary culling of livestock by a business would have to be addressed by Agriculture and Agri-food Canada.