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How the coronavirus pandemic could change meat processing in Canada

COVID-19 triggers calls for meat supply chain overhaul
WATCH: The closure of Canadian meat processing plants due to COVID-19 outbreaks have prompted fears of a meat shortage. Critics say the supply chain isn't equipped for a crisis, and as Ryan Kessler reports, they want an overhaul.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has some meat processors and industry groups calling for a more regional approach to food production.

Seventy per cent of Canada’s beef processing capability lies in two plants, according to the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA).

The Cargill Inc. facility in High River, Alta., saw more than 900 employees test positive for the new coronavirus. The plant has since reopened, but its temporary closure led to backlogs for farmers, higher consumer prices and worries about meat making it to store shelves.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Another Cargill meat plant set to close due to COVID-19 outbreak

For decades, the National Farmers Union (NFU) has called for a less consolidated meat processing system.

“The pandemic is exposing the problems that were there before,” said Tim Dowling, a Kingston, Ont., area farmer and board member of NFU Local 316.

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The organization wants more small plants capable of regional processing to reduce dependence on large corporations like Cargill and the JSB plant in Brooks, Alta.

“Now is the time to sort of secure a food system that works when there’s a crisis,” Dowling said.

Orders from Pine View Farms north of Saskatoon have doubled since March 10, according to co-owner Melanie Boldt. She credits people buying local, seeking home delivery and trying to avoid stores stricken by panic buying.

Coronavirus: Beef prices won’t skyrocket, food supply expert says
Coronavirus: Beef prices won’t skyrocket, food supply expert says

READ MORE: 2 Alberta meat plants affected by COVID-19 make up 70% of Canada’s beef processing capabilities

Boldt said it’s also gotten people thinking about regionalizing food production, with smaller-scale plans around large urban centres.

“I think that’s what we’re starting to see as a potential new way of doing business,” Boldt said.

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In a statement to Global News, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada said increasing domestic processing is a key priority in a recently announced $77.5 million emergency processing fund.

The money is meant to help plants address COVID-19 challenges like acquiring personal protective equipment and adapting to new protocols.

“It will also help food processors reopen or upgrade facilities for domestic food processing, make upgrades to reopen shuttered meat facilities, or modernize or automate plants that have closed or are operating at less than full capacity,” the statement reads.

Mike von Massow, a food economist with the University of Guelph, said this isn’t a case of large processors versus small ones.

READ MORE: Grocery stores haven’t really been running out of food during the pandemic — here’s why

“Is there an opportunity to perhaps diversify our processing base a little bit to reduce some of these risks? Yes,” von Massow said.

He also said there could be trade-offs under a more regional system, including higher consumer prices, which may hurt demand. Canada also exports nearly half of its slaughtered beef and cattle, according to the CCA.

“If we get too regionalized and more expensive, we might lose some of those opportunities,” he said.

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The economist also said a regional system works if international borders close. In this case, he said Canada’s integration with the United States allowed grocery stores to stay mostly stocked.

“We’ve seen the system bend, but not break.”

With files from The Canadian Press