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Meat prices, supply could change as industry grapples with COVID-19

Canadian beef industry stakeholders address COVID-19 crisis
WATCH: Canadian beef industry stakeholders address COVID-19 crisis

Canadians could see changes in the variety and prices of meat on grocery store shelves amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The changes are anticipated as key plants across Canada grapple with changing demand and adapting to impacts from COVID-19, the federal agriculture minister said Wednesday.

“It’s a possibility that the variety of products that we find on our shelves might be a bit different for a while. It’s a possibility,” said Marie-Claude Bibeau, minister of agriculture and agri-food, at a news conference.

“But I don’t worry that we won’t have enough food. We might see some differences in variety, and maybe in the prices as well.”

READ MORE: Canadian cattle group looks for help to weather COVID-19 as meat packers slow work

Several meat processors in Canada and the United States have either suspended or slowed operations in recent weeks because of outbreaks among staff or due to physical distancing measures meant to stop the virus from spreading.

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In Calgary, Cargill Meat Solutions recently announced that it would pause its second shift of workers. Its union reported dozens of COVID-19 cases at the plant, and has called for a full, two-week closure with full compensation for its 2,000 workers. The plant represents more than one-third of Canada’s beef-processing capacity.

In northeast Montreal, an Olymel pork plant is “slowly” reopening after an outbreak of the virus forced a two-week shutdown. Olymel is Canada’s largest pork processor and exporter.

The Yamachiche plant in Quebec, and its counterpart in Alberta, normally process approximately 187,000 pigs a week in total, according to spokesperson Richard Vigneault. At Yamachiche, prior to the pandemic, the weekly slaughter sat around 28,000 hogs.

That production is down because of COVID-19, he said, however, he could not say exactly how much.

Cargill cuts shifts at High River plant in response to COVID-19
Cargill cuts shifts at High River plant in response to COVID-19

Bibeau said adapting to new measures recommended by public health has been a challenge across the agricultural industry. Distancing at certain working stations in meat processing plants like Olymel’s “cannot be respected,” the company said in a press release.

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The changes have further reduced production capacities. With new protocols framed around keeping workers safe, hundreds of employees are working two shifts.

Vigneault said the Yamachiche plant typically employs about 1,000 people working across three different daily shifts. One of those shifts involves sterilizing the plant, which tends to happen overnight.

He said only about 450 employees are back-to-work as of April 15, alternating both shifts.

More inspectors to be added

Bibeau acknowledged the difficult decisions plants have made during the pandemic, but said she was “confident” that the system was strong enough to get through a “short disruption period.”

“We are producing much more than we eat in Canada, but we’re going through a challenging period,” she said. “I think our system is strong enough and resilient enough that it will adapt, but these days it’s been particularly challenging.”

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Southern Alberta meat plant makes changes amid COVID-19 outbreak
Southern Alberta meat plant makes changes amid COVID-19 outbreak

As part of the federal government’s aim to keep the supply moving, millions in new funding for farmers was announced this week. Bibeau said part of that money will go toward working with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to increase the number of inspectors available to maintain safety protocols and keep plants in operation.

She did not have a breakdown for the funding to achieve this or an exact number of how many more inspectors would be added and deployed.

“They’re working in different plants and they could eventually get sick. We know that the demand also increases because there might be longer hours of work to compensate for a lower level of production,” she said, adding that demand might fluctuate from one region to another.

READ MORE: Where’s the beef? Red meat consumption, prices dropping, say experts

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“We want to add enough inspectors and enough stability to make sure if there is a slow down in production, it wouldn’t be because the CFIA wasn’t able to meet the demand.”

Bibeau said she is in talks with her provincial counterparts, the CFIA and some retailers about “different ways to facilitate the movement of products all across the country.”

She said the food sector is a priority for the federal government during COVID-19.

Price, variety could change with shutdowns

While beef, pork and even produce sectors could be “heavily impacted” in the months to come due to COVID-19, Evan Fraser, the director of the University of Guelph’s Arrell Food Institute, isn’t convinced the crisis rests on disrupted supply chains. He said unemployment numbers across the country are more likely to blame.

“It’s the loss of income, it’s the 300 per cent increase in food bank use that’s been reported in the last 10 days. I think there’s a COVID-19 food security problem and crisis emerging, but it’s not the one that’s getting people nervous because of the images of empty grocery store shelves,” he said.

Fraser said COVID-19 has revealed a number of “vulnerabilities” in the food system. He said prices could rise and shelves might empty if more plants are forced to close — especially ones in the U.S.

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Coronavirus: Okanagan Food Banks in see increase in demand and decrease in donations
Coronavirus: Okanagan Food Banks in see increase in demand and decrease in donations

Smithfield Foods, the world’s biggest pork processor, told Reuters on Sunday that it is indefinitely shutting a pork plant that accounts for about four to five per cent of U.S. production.

It warned that plant shutdowns are pushing the U.S. “perilously close to the edge” in meat supplies for grocers.

“That’s not a reason for consumers to panic,” Fraser said. “We’re not facing a massive food security crisis as a result, but I don’t think that it will be as easy or as cheap to buy beef and pork in the next month or two as it has traditionally been.”

As part of the way to alleviate some uncertainty, the government is considering some new “incentives” for Canadians to join the food industry.

Bibeau acknowledged it won’t be easy to bring people in, but that it could be beneficial for both sides. She said the government is looking at ways to let Canadians work in the industry without losing employment insurance benefits.

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“We know we have a great number of Canadians who are unemployed right now,” she told reporters. “We are looking at ways for Canadians to work in the food industry, in farms, processing plants. It’s a big challenge for the whole supply chain right now. It’s something we’re looking at, but too soon to tell you how we will proceed.”

— with files from the Canadian Press, Reuters and Global News’ David Akin