Canadian meat-packing industry looks to make big changes following COVID-19

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Coronavirus: How the pandemic has changed the future of meat processing plants
Heather Yourex-West looks into how the pandemic has changed the future of meat processing plants – Jun 14, 2020

Remilyn Biay returned to work at the JBS beef-processing plant in Brooks, Alta., at the beginning of June.

“I was surprised actually because, from the guard house to inside the plant, there (have been) a lot of changes,” said the single mom.

Biay had taken six weeks off to care for her son while his day-care was closed because of community outbreak of COVID-19. She tested positive as well, though she never experienced symptoms.

Now fully recovered, Biay said she feels safe to go back at work but many of her co-workers have been reluctant.

“Actually I have friends, they still stay in the house now. They say, ‘No, I don’t want to go back because we’re scared.'”

READ MORE: COVID-19 in Brooks: How a small Alberta city faced one of Canada’s most virulent outbreaks

Outbreaks at two southern Alberta meat-processing plants this spring made hundreds of people sick with COVID-19.

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At least 943 employees at the Cargill facility in High River, Alta., tested positive so far and two workers, 67-year-old Hiep Bui and 51-year-old Benito Quesada, died. More than 1,500 cases were linked to the plant in the largest outbreak from a single site in Canada.

Meanwhile, 661 workers were infected at the JBS plant in Brooks — one of whom died.

That facility never closed, but production was cut to one shift a day.

The Cargill plant reopened in early May and the JBS facility has returned to running two shifts, with many changes.

“They’ve introduced PPE [personal protective equipment] so that people are wearing masks and visors,” said Mike von Massow, an associate professor in the Food, Agricultural, and Resource Economics Department at the University of Guelph.

“They’ve put plastic barriers between individual people working in the plant in order to reduce the flow of air between individuals. They’ve also staggered people’s start and finish times and they’ve staggered breaks to reduce density.”

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READ MORE COVID-19 in Brooks: How widespread testing, cultural support helped an Alberta city avert disaster

So far, the measures seem to be working. As of June 26, there were only two active cases among workers at the Cargill and JBS plants, and no new outbreaks have been reported.

Both plants are now nearly back to running at full capacity but even before the pandemic,  von Massow says the industry struggled with a labour shortage.

“That’s one of the reasons we have temporary foreign workers in these plants. It’s one of the reasons we have new immigrants working in these plants because they’re not jobs that everybody wants, so even before the risk of infection through COVID, which we’ve now reduced, these plants often had trouble filling jobs.”

As meat processors return to full production, balancing worker safety and profitability may become more difficult, but it also may not be possible to keep workers physically distanced without re-engineering factories and work processes.

READ MORE: Widow and children of Cargill worker who died from COVID-19 share heartbreak

“What I’ve said to a few people in government is what the plants looked like pre-COVID are not what they look like currently, and I don’t think that’s what the plants will like post-COVID,” said Chris White, president of the Canadian Meat Council.

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“What I do think it has done is advance the discussion of whether or not you would want to look at having more automation in your plants. I think on balance, most of the plants are looking at that at some level.”

Last year, the U.S. meat-processing giant, Tyson Foods, opened a new facility in Arkansas to develop automation technology.

In 2015, JBS bought Scott Technologies, a New Zealand company that specializes in robot butchers.

At the JBS lamb-processing plant in Australia, the company uses artificial intelligence to automate some of the meat-cutting jobs. X-rays and CT scanners are used to create a 3D model of the shape and size of the carcass before cutting starts. The technology has already significantly reduced the number of workers on the cutting lines.

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