Maple Leaf Foods planning $660M, 1,500-job poultry-processing facility in London

Maple Leaf Foods President and CEO Michael McCain shakes hands with Premier Doug Ford, during the announcement of a $660-million poultry processing plant in London on Nov. 27/2018. Liny Lamberink/980 CFPL

In a major boon to London’s agri-food sector, Maple Leaf Foods says it plans to construct a state-of-the-art 640,000 square-foot fresh poultry facility in the city’s southeast at a cost of $660 million.

Construction on the poultry-processing plant is set to begin in the spring on Wilton Grove Road at Highbury Avenue, with an opening date set for early-to-mid 2021, the company said in a statement.

When it opens, the facility will directly support more than 1,450 full- and part-time jobs — a number the company says it expects to grow as production volumes rise — and indirectly support a further 1,400 jobs.

Construction on the plant itself is set to generate 300 jobs, and the company said.

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“Fresh poultry is the number one meat consumed by Canadians, and continues to grow in popularity with 86 per cent of shoppers across this country preparing chicken at home at least once a week,” said Maple Leaf Foods President and CEO Michael McCain.

The project, coming at a total cost of around $660 million, is being funded largely by the company, with $34.5 million coming from the province, $20 million from the federal government, and $8 million from an AgriInnovate Fund loan.

McCain called it the “largest single-site investment ever in Canadian food industry history,” during a formal announcement Tuesday morning at the Canadian Centre for Product Validation in southeast London.

The event drew various stakeholders and politicians, including Federal Minister of Agriculture Lawrence MacAulay, and Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who opened his remarks with an anecdote about landing a job with Maple Leaf Foods, formerly Canada Packers, at 16 years old.

“I’ll never forget. I was working at my dad’s office, I think he was paying me $5 an hour. And then I went over to Maple Leaf Foods, and I ended up getting $12.49 an hour, 38 years ago, and I just thought I died and went to heaven,” he laughed.

Ford also credited the McCain family for their dedication to giving back to the community.

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Three ageing Maple Leaf plants across Ontario — in St. Marys, Toronto, and Brampton — will close and have their operations consolidated into the London facility, the company said. The St. Marys facility will shut down by late 2021, while the others will be closed by mid-to-late 2022.

The company said in a statement released Monday afternoon that Maple Leaf would work with local communities to find alternate uses for the facilities and that it would provide impacted employees with job opportunities at the new facility.

McCain acknowledged the jobs being introduced in London weren’t really new when considering the total loss of 1,600 jobs between the three other communities.

“It’s the same number, but they’re more secure jobs. For the next number of decades,” he said, adding that employees in St. Marys, Brampton, and Toronto have between two-to-three years to transition into other jobs either inside or outside the company.

During a conference call with investors late Monday afternoon, McCain said the new facility would employ leading food and workplace safety standards, and use “improved process design and technologies” for stunning, chilling, slicing, and deboning.

“These are all proven technologies, globally, but this will be one of the first scale facilities in North America which brings them all together in one end-to-end plant,” he said, noting the controlled-atmosphere stunning process to be used at the facility is a more humane method to render birds fully unconscious.

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“I think even calling it a ‘major announcement’ is an understatement,” said Mayor Matt Brown early Monday evening.

Years in the works, Brown said the deal involved all three levels of government working together in conjunction with the London Economic Development Corporation (LEDC) and Maple Leaf Foods, “to make sure this was the right fit.”

Brown said he looked forward to thanking the LEDC for their work during a formal announcement set for Tuesday morning, in addition to acknowledging the role city council played.

“Council had the vision to set aside significant amounts of dollars to ensure we had an industrial land use strategy in place where we had lands that were serviced and ready to go for massive investments like this one,” he said.

Maple Leaf Foods said the location was chosen for its close proximity to chicken farms, contract growers, and major transportation corridors, including Hwy. 401.

“When I think about the agri-food sector, I can’t think of an announcement that’s been this big in London, at least in recent history, and maybe in the history of London.”

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The LEDC said it and the city worked extensively with the food giant to secure the new plant, described by the organization’s president and CEO as the largest addition to the city’s food processing sector in the last two decades.

“Maple Leaf Foods will bring significant employment and long-term economic benefits to the entire Southwest region,” said Kapil Lakhotia in a brief statement.

According to the LEDC, more than 60 food and beverage companies — including Labatt, McCormick, Dr. Oetker, Cargill, Nestle, and others — employ more than 7,000 people in London.

But not everyone is happy about the development. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation issued a statement, wondering why decision-makers didn’t pause to ask why Maple Leaf couldn’t pay for its own processing plant and accusing Ford and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of hoping for “political spinoff benefits for politicians.”

“Here’s one result that’s a certainty,” the statement reads. “Taxpayers will remember that the Ford and Trudeau governments are respecting their tax dollars by putting them where they are most obviously unneeded: into the pockets of a corporation for the purpose of building a chicken processing plant.”

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The poultry processing plant is the second major agri-food investment along Wilton Grove Road in less than half a year.

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Over the summer, Nestle Canada announced it would invest more than $51 million to expand its ice cream facility by 9,000 square feet, hiring an additional 150 full-time employees. The plant currently employs between 700 and 750 people.

The Nestle plant is just a five-minute drive away from Maple Leaf Foods’ planned facility.

With files from 980 CFPL’s Liny Lamberink, and The Canadian Press

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