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Alberta meat plant should slow production to avoid more COVID-19 outbreaks: union head

Click to play video 'Coronavirus outbreak: Production need to slow down to help physical distancing at meat-packing plants: Meinema' Coronavirus outbreak: Production need to slow down to help physical distancing at meat-packing plants: Meinema
WATCH ABOVE: Production need to slow down to help physical distancing at meat packing plants: Meinama – May 3, 2020

The head of the union that represents workers at an Alberta meat plant hit by a major COVID-19 outbreak says production should be slowed to ensure workers’ safety and to avoid further outbreaks and shutdowns.

In an interview with The West Block’s Mercedes Stephenson, the national president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union said “a number” of safety protocols have been implemented at the Cargill Meat Solutions plant in High River, Alta., during the coronavirus pandemic and after it temporarily closed on April 20 — but the union wants social distancing measures bolstered further before the plant reopens.

“These facilities have people working shoulder to shoulder,” Paul Meinema said.

“A consistent slow production may be better off than running at full speed and risking further breakouts.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus may cause temporary meat shortages. But higher prices will last longer

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Meinema made the comments in an interview on Friday, hours before news broke that UFCW Local 401 launched legal action to stop the planned opening of the Cargill plant on May 4.

One death and more than 900 COVID-19 cases have been linked to the facility amid the pandemic.

The UFCW is asking that a stop-work order be issued by Alberta Occupational Health and Safety for the plant and filed an unfair labour practice complaint. Union leaders say they haven’t gotten the confirmation they need to feel assured that members are returning to a safe working environment.

Cargill announced a temporary shut down of its beef plant near High River where officials in the area are dealing with over 400 cases of COVID-19 linked to the plant, including the death of a worker, in High River, Alta., Thursday, April 23, 2020.
Cargill announced a temporary shut down of its beef plant near High River where officials in the area are dealing with over 400 cases of COVID-19 linked to the plant, including the death of a worker, in High River, Alta., Thursday, April 23, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

In a statement to Global News on Friday, Cargill said the safety of its workers is the company’s “top priority.”

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“We are engaging in good faith with the UFCW. We are eager to sit down and have a meaningful discussion about our shared focus — keeping our workers safe in the midst of this global pandemic,” a spokesperson for the company said.

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“Alberta Health Services and Occupational Health and Safety reviewed the safety measures at our facility and support reopening.”

Earlier this week, Alberta’s chief medical officer said local medical officers of health performed on-site inspections at the plant.

“My understanding, from the information that my colleagues have given me, is that this plant, in particular, has made sure that all measures to prevent spread of infection are being put in place,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said.

When it announced the plant’s reopening, Cargill said “all social distancing and infection prevention and control measures” would remain in place, including protective barriers between employees on the production floor and the provision of “full face shields” for “any job where the protective barrier is not possible due to job movement.”

Click to play video 'Alberta NDP call for inquiry into Cargill outbreak' Alberta NDP call for inquiry into Cargill outbreak
Alberta NDP call for inquiry into Cargill outbreak – Apr 30, 2020

Meinema argued Friday that reducing the line speed at the plant, on top of those measures, would better protect workers.

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“We believe it’s not business as usual, that we can’t continue to operate at a capacity that the facilities are trying to operate at,” Meinema said.

“The only safe way that we see in some of these facilities — the way they’re equipped — to get the physical distance as needed, is to slow the production line down.”

Asked whom he holds responsible for the outbreak at the Cargill facility — the employer or the Government of Alberta — Meinema declined to answer.

“I think the situation is that we are in unprecedented times,” he said.

“I don’t think I’m going to point a finger at anyone in particular. I think there’s enough finger-pointing going on around.”

READ MORE: NDP demands inquiry into Alberta meat plant COVID-19 protocols as Cargill plans reopening

Cargill isn’t alone in managing a workforce hit by COVID-19 with pressure to continue supplying the country with food. Coronavirus cases have also been recorded at the JBS meatpacking plant in Brooks, Alta.

Together, the two plants make up 70 per cent of Canada’s beef processing capabilities, according to the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

A pork-processing plant in Breslau, Ont., that accounts for about one-third of the federally-inspected pork produced in Ontario, shut down on April 27 for a week — also due to COVID-19.

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Despite issues in the food industry, Canada’s food supply chain has weathered the pandemic well so far, said Lenore Newman, director of the Food and Agriculture Institute, in an interview with Global News earlier this week.

But she said that if issues at meat processing plants continue, there’s no guarantee that meat shortages and higher prices won’t develop down the road.

— With files from Global News’ Heide Pearson, Rachael D’Amore and The Canadian Press