‘Their lives are at risk’: Variants heighten concerns at meat plants

Safety protocols in Canada’s beef industry are not sufficient to keep workers out of harm’s way in the face of COVID-19 variants, labour groups say.

The protocols “weren’t adequate in the first wave – and the second wave,” says Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. “They’re even less adequate now.”

Marichu Antonio, executive director of Calgary-based community organization Action Dignity, which supported workers during two outbreaks at slaughterhouses last year, fears the worst for workers if COVID-19 variants get into the meat plants. 

“Their lives are being put at risk,” she says.

The stock image of Alberta’s beef industry, cows grazing on pastures with mountains in the distance, took a direct hit during the first wave of the pandemic last year when more than 1,500 workers at the two slaughterhouses fell sick with COVID-19, shuttering one and forcing the other to run only one shift per day.

The two plants – Cargill in High River and JBS in Brooks – together process roughly 70 per cent of Canadian beef. Government and industry worked together to find a way to operate the meat plants during the pandemic since slaughterhouses are vital both to Canada’s food security and Alberta’s economy.

But almost a year later, outbreaks are still occurring despite the safety measures. Since November, more than 500 cases have been linked to the Olymel pork plant in Red Deer. In early February, the Cargill plant reported another smaller outbreak. So far, only one meat-packing plant in Canada has detected variant cases among its workers: Belmont Meats in Toronto. There were eight cases of the COVID-19 variant from the United Kingdom, known as B.1.1.7, detected in February. 

Though meat plants have consistently been the sites of large outbreaks across Canada and around the world, companies say new safety measures like physical barriers, social distancing and personal protective equipment are enough to protect tens of thousands of workers who spend their days side by side in processing lines

“The last thing plants want is for their workers to be sick,” said Chris White, president of the Canadian Meat Council, which represents the industry.

However, the guidelines have not helped at Olymel, where an outbreak that was initially under control last fall continued to grow until the 1,850-worker plant shut down in mid-February. More than 500 cases and four deaths have been linked to the outbreak. The plant began a gradual reopening on March 4.

“You don’t need to be a scientist to know that we’re not learning fast enough,” says Gabriel Fabreau, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary who is leading a study on Canada’s slaughterhouse outbreaks.

Governments have avoided ordering any closures, according to White, leaving the decision to companies themselves. The processing facilities are important to Canadian consumers and the economy.

However, Fabreau notes that once the virus is inside a meat plant, how COVID-19 spreads rapidly is clear. Research has shown that conditions inside slaughterhouses are ideal for aerosol transmission.

“We’re putting multiple thousand bodies in an indoor facility, with ventilation, metal surfaces, refrigeration and humidified air,” he said. “The risk will never be low.”

Industry representatives point instead to community spread as the most significant factor. White says that workers need to be educated about virus transmission.

Most of those employed at the plants are immigrants, refugees or temporary foreign workers who do not speak English as their first language. Shared housing and carpooling also make them more vulnerable. And many cannot easily isolate themselves nor afford to lose income by staying home.

“They worried about their health,” said Antonio. “But they also worried about their pay and their jobs.”

Workers also feel scapegoated by the very communities they feed. “They still suffer from the stigma” even after their physical symptoms go away, says Annalee Coakley, who treated patients who fell ill during the Cargill outbreak last year.

Coakley is part of a committee formed by the Alberta government in late February that convenes companies, regulatory bodies, health-care providers and employees at meat plants to discuss improving safety measures at all slaughterhouses in the province.

Vaccination is the best hope for mitigating the risks, Coakley says. Alberta has not released details for vaccinating essential workers, including those in meat-processing plants.

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Bryony Lau


Bryony Lau is a freelance journalist and researcher focused on Southeast Asia and a current fellow in the Dalla Lana Global Journalism program.
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