As the COVID-19 crisis edges into a second year, the food processing industry wants provinces to include plant workers in the next phase of vaccinations.
After a two-week shutdown, the Olymel pork processing plant in Red Deer, Alta., resumed operations Thursday.
A COVID-19 outbreak there led to more than 500 infections and at least three deaths.
“We grieve with the family of the workers who have been lost and we share the anxiety and the fear of the workers who are now called to return to work,” said Thomas Hesse, president of the United Food and Commercials Workers Canada (UFCW) Local 401.
Alberta food processing deaths
The three deaths at Olymel make it the deadliest COVID-19 outbreak at a meat processing facility in Canada.
Across Alberta, six workers have now died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began: 51-year-old Benito Quesada and 67-year-old Hiep Bui worked at the Cargill beef processing plant in High River, while 50-year-old Henry de Leon and 35-year-old Darwin Doloque worked at Olymel.
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A third Olymel worker has not yet been identified. The sixth death involved a worker from the JBS beef processing plant in the town of Brooks, located about an hour east of Calgary.
There have been other outbreaks involving meat processing plants across the country, but the outbreaks last spring at Cargill in High River and the JBS facility in Brooks, as well as the recent Olymel outbreak in Red Deer, have been among the country’s biggest.
The Alberta NDP has called for an inquiry to find out why.
A University of Calgary research project is also investigating but for now, it’s clear after a year of being in a pandemic — workers in these facilities continue to face incredible risk.
“If you look at the entire (food) supply chain, I would say the most vulnerable workers are right in the middle — in processing — because things are tight, things are intense,” said Sylvain Charlebois, scientific director of the Agri-Foods Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.
“Working conditions aren’t great for people but they are great for viruses.”
It’s why the industry is calling on provinces to prioritize these workers in the next phases of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
“Given the proximity of how the workers work in the facility, they’re just more susceptible to transmission of COVID,” said Chris White, president & CEO of the Canadian Meat Council.
“Anything we can do to ensure the safety of the workers — and by extension their families — that’s something we have a responsibility to advocate for.”
Charlebois believes there have been more than 15 temporary closures at meat processing facilities related to COVID-19 across the country in the last year.
“Manufacturing plants are part of a supply chain,” he said. “In some cases, we actually saw some cases of euthanasia because when you keep, for example, pigs for too long in a backlog, you have to feed them and that costs a lot of money.”
British Columbia and Ontario list essential workers in Phase 3 of their provincial vaccine rollout schedule — a population scheduled for vaccination later this spring.
Alberta’s plan does not prioritize essential workers, but the government said they could be included in the next phase of the province’s vaccine rollout if there is adequate supply.