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40 CFIA meat plant inspectors, including 21 in Alberta, test positive for COVID-19: Union

Dozens of meat inspectors test positive for COVID-19
WATCH: COVID-19 outbreaks at meat-packing plants across Canada have led to a shortage of food inspectors, with dozens infected and others in fear of falling ill. As David Akin explains, that's putting extra strain on the country's already bruised food supply.

Forty meat plant inspectors with the CFIA, including 21 working in Alberta facilities, have tested positive for the novel coronavirus according to the union representing the inspectors.

Agriculture Union president Fabian Murphy told Global News on Wednesday that since the middle of April, cases among food inspectors have been steadily rising.

READ MORE: 2nd death at Cargill prompts calls from Alberta NDP, union to shut down meat plant

Of the 37 inspectors stationed at the Cargill Meat Solutions plant in High River, Alta. — the site of one of the biggest outbreaks in the country — 18 have tested positive for the virus, according to Murphy.

“I think [the numbers are] too high. I think it’s unacceptable that we keep sending people into those plants and they keep getting infected with COVID-19,” Manning said. “I don’t think it’s the responsible thing to do.

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“As the employer, CFIA is responsible to protect the health and safety of these folks, and I think, unless they can guarantee that there’s a safe environment there, then those plants should be shut down and those people should not have to go to work there.”

In an emailed statement, the CFIA told Global News it was aware of 39 positive cases among employees.

The positive tests span from March 23 to May 12, the CFIA said, adding “this number is indicative of all employees (not only inspectors) and is cumulative and does not take into account those employees who may have since returned to work.”

While Murphy couldn’t speak to the medical status of the individuals who are ill, he did say one of the union’s members with the virus had to be hospitalized.

Alberta NDP call for inquiry into Cargill outbreak
Alberta NDP call for inquiry into Cargill outbreak

Murphy said the inspectors are continuing to report to work at facilities across the country, but the anxiety over the situation is very high.

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“The infection rates in some of these plants is over 50 per cent,” Murphy said.

“Despite the best efforts from the facilities to implement the measures such as plexiglass barriers between workstations, face shields and face coverings, we’re seeing that this doesn’t stop the spread of this virus.”

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In addition to the 40 people who had contracted the virus, Murphy said roughly the same number of inspectors are self-isolating and monitoring for symptoms.

The CFIA said masks and face shields are available for all meat inspectors to use when reporting to work.

“CFIA employees follow the health and safety guidance issued by the Public Health Agency of Canada and Health Canada, as well as by local public health authorities, and follow protocols put in place at the establishments in which they work to mitigate risks of exposure to the COVID virus,” a spokesperson said.

The CFIA also said that all inspectors, as well as veterinarians, complete a self-assessment before each shift, and if they are feeling sick or have come into close contact with someone who has the virus, they’re told to stay at home. They also participate in operator-initiated screening at sites where that measure is in place.

Speaking to members of the media on Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the situation in many meat packing plants across the country is “extremely difficult.”

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“That has been a real challenge, and we always are trying to find that balance between assuring a safe and reliable food supply for Canadians – which is fundamental and necessary – while at the same time ensuring the protection of workers who are there,” Trudeau said. “That obviously includes the food inspectors, and we need to make sure they have access to the right kinds of personal protective equipment and the right conditions to keep them safe.

“As important as it is to keep our economy going and get food on the table, we also need to make sure we are prioritizing worker safety.”

‘The numbers climbed’ due to Cargill outbreak

Murphy said there were smaller numbers of cases reported across the country in the early days, but when the outbreak happened at Cargill, “the numbers climbed.” Nearly half the employees at the Cargill facility have tested positive for the virus.

“When you have those concentrations of people working in those close quarters facilities, that’s when you see the numbers ballooning,” he said.

Cargill workers’ union protests as plant near High River reopens
Cargill workers’ union protests as plant near High River reopens

The plant was temporarily shut down in late April as officials tried to get a handle on the fast-spreading outbreak, which has accounted for a large portion of Alberta’s total cases.

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It reopened in the beginning of May, but there are claims that work done to ensure the safety of those working there was insufficient.

READ MORE: Alberta Labour offers details on probe looking into COVID-19 death linked to Cargill meat plant

According to Murphy, the inspectors working at the Cargill plant have expressed concerns with the safety measures taken within the facility, such as the physical distancing.

“They’re seeing that that’s not possible at all,” Murphy said.

“People are feeling that their own safety is in jeopardy whenever those safety precautions that are put in place can’t be maintained.”

Murphy said both the federal and provincial governments “dropped the ball” on the Cargill file, and they should have taken action quicker to slow the spread of the virus.

“We had the outbreak there, they kept the plant going for quite a period of time before they shut down Cargill which created the spread of the virus. I think there’s a lot of pressure from the provincial government to keep these plants open and to keep the food production industry… the beef industry going there,” he said.

“I understand that’s important, but at the end of the day I think swifter action would have resulted in fewer cases of COVID-19 in that whole community.”

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The CFIA said when cases of COVID-19 are confirmed at a food processing facility, the agency “works with local public health authorities to determine the level of risk of exposure for CFIA employees, and their need for self-isolation and/or referral to health services for testing.”

READ MORE: How the coronavirus pandemic could change meat processing in Canada

“The CFIA works with establishments and Occupational Health and Safety representatives to ensure all measures recommended by public health authorities are in place before reintroducing employees into their work spaces,” the statement read.

When asked about the fact that Alberta cases account for approximately 50 per cent of the total number of infections among CFIA food inspectors, Alberta’s Department of Agriculture and Forestry said “public health officials, Occupational Health and Safety and others have all worked together to protect worker safety at the plants and help limit the spread of COVID-19. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has worked closely with provincial authorities to provide a safe work environment for its inspectors.”

“Agriculture and Forestry is in regular contact with the CFIA as they continue to provide meat inspection services in Alberta. The CFIA has maintained inspection services as required at the Cargill facility,” a spokesperson for the department said.

“Despite these positive cases of COVID-19 in federal meat inspectors, production capacity has not been impacted at Cargill. To support the continuous operation of Alberta’s food supply chain, Agriculture and Forestry partnered with the CFIA to increase food inspector capacity. Provincial meat inspectors have been trained for deployment to federally licensed plants in Alberta, if needed, to maintain inspection capacity.”

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