A food expert says farmers may need to euthanize large numbers of chickens as a result of a decision to close Nova Scotia’s only federally inspected poultry processing plant for 14-days due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
Sylvain Charlebois is a food expert at Dalhousie University and says that shuttering a poultry plant for a two week period could come with dire consequences.
“I honestly believe that for farmers, that is a scenario that is likely on the table right now, euthanizing a lot of chicken,” he said.
For Nova Scotia’s poultry farmers, they say the decision to close the Eden Valley Poultry Inc. processing plant in Berwick, N.S., for two weeks is not just a concern for the industry but for the general populace as a whole.
“It’s critical to keep the shutdown as short as possible,” said Thom Oulton, chair of the Chicken Farmers of Nova Scotia, speaking with Global News from Port Williams, N.S.
Oulton stressed that the industry is not going to speculate about the potential euthanization of the Eden Valley Poultry plant chickens at this time. Their main focus is on working with the province to come up with a solution.
A COVID-19 outbreak was declared at the plant on Wednesday after at least four confirmed COVID-19 cases were linked to the plant. That figure has since grown to six as of Sunday.
All 430 employees have been tested and are self-isolating until they can be retested this coming week.
Oulton says that protecting public health is just as crucial as protecting the security of the food supply.
“Consumers are counting on farmers to supply them with chicken. Every day the plant is down, has the potential to put our local food supply at risk,” Oulton said.
Oulton is calling on the province to process test results on the plant’s essential workers as quickly as possible.
He says he wants the industry and its workers to be healthy and understands that the coronavirus works in a two-week cycle but he said he’s frustrated that the province made its decision on a 14-day shutdown when it still had 300 tests outstanding.
“We can learn from other plants’ experience through this pandemic and other provinces have focused on testing in plants and timely testing getting back,” Oulton said.
When asked for a response, the province said that the two week shut down announced on Friday will stand and that employees will be re-tested.
Charlebois says the shutdown at Eden Valley Poultry Inc. is the 16th meat processing plant and the third poultry plant in Canada to have had a COVID-19 outbreak.
However, Charlebois says this is the only facility he knows of that has been shut down for two weeks.
“Two weeks, in poultry, is a long time,” said Charlebois.
The entire cycle of getting chickens to harvest is a nine-week cycle, he explained.
“The problem in our province is that we have no options. We have no other options. You would have to truck chickens for hundreds of kilometres outside the province,” Charlebois said.
“So to slaughter these chickens, it becomes it becomes very challenging.”
Oulton says that processing meat in nearby provinces is unlikely to work.
“The closest plants to us are in New Brunswick, and they have their own production schedules to manage, moving all of the production slated for our local plant to another one in the area may not be possible,” said Oulton.
Charlebois says he’s not convinced the province has fully examined the implications of closing the plant for two weeks. He says other meat processing plants across Canada have been impacted by COVID-19 but have avoided full closures.
For instance, there have been 21 workers at the Cargill meat processing facility in Guelph, Ont. who have tested positive for COVID-19.
But in contrast to Nova Scotia’s response, the Ontario plant has yet to cease processing operations.
Instead, work at the facility has been slowed down as workers self-isolate and are tested for the virus, CBC reported earlier this week.
Oulton says he would favour a more comprehensive approach that gets people back to work and ensures those at risk are safe.
“We need to plan for this with the schedule currently right now, the employees of the plant are home without a paycheque and hopefully without COVID,” said Oulton.
Charlebois says the shutdown will likely trickle down to consumers depending on which supermarket chain is being served by the plant.
— With files from Maria Tobin