TORONTO -- COVID-19 infections are now disrupting parts of Canada's food sector, including the meat processing industry.

Meat-packing plants in Alberta that are responsible for a substantial portion of Canada’s beef are shut or running reduced lines as they grapple with outbreaks among staff.

The shutdown of these plants and others across the country is causing a ripple effect throughout Canada's food supply chain, affecting grocery stores and fast-food chains.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the shutdown of meat plants in his daily public briefing on April 29, saying the federal government’s priority is ensuring those supply chains keep functioning and that its workers feel safe.

"The priority or the preoccupation and challenges we're facing isn't as much around safety of the food produced, which continues to be ensured, but the safety of the workers working in those plants because of COVID-19," Trudeau said. "That is something that requires a little more work and a little more co-ordination to ensure that we're keeping those workers safe, not just the food safe -- which is always a priority for us all."

Trudeau said the federal government is working "very closely" with the agricultural industry and provinces to ensure that meat plants continue to get food to Canadians while adhering to public health measures.

The federal government announced May 5 that it is providing $252 million in new federal assistance for Canadian farmers and others in the agri-food sector whose livelihoods have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, to help redistribute food and better protect workers in processing plants. looks at which processing plants are seeing outbreaks and what the companies are doing to ensure Canada maintains a safe supply of meat.


Cargill Inc. -- one of Alberta's largest meat processing plants -- shut down its plant in High River on April 20 after a 68-year-old woman who worked at the plant died from COVID-19. The father of a Cargill worker has also died after both tested positive for COVID-19 on April 23.

The Alberta government announced May 11 that a second employee at Cargill has died of COVID-19. There are 947 cases of COVID-19 confirmed among workers at the Cargill plant as of May 11. More than 1,500 community cases can be traced back to the plant. It's the largest outbreak linked to a single site in Canada.

The company reopened the facility May 4 with one shift of workers despite opposition from the union that represents the workers. In a statement, the company said additional safety measures have been implemented at the facility. Employees returning to the plant are required to have had no symptoms of illness and not had contact with anyone infected with COVID-19 for the past 14 days.

Having less workers at the facility isn't expected to result in beef shortages, but the reduction in capacity means that ranchers will bear the brunt. As prices for their product fall, ranchers will have to choose between an increase in transportation costs for sending their cattle further for processing, or an increase in overhead because they’re keeping the animals for longer.

The Cargill plant processes about 4,500 head of cattle per day -- more than one-third of Canada's beef-processing capacity.

The Les Aliments Cargill plant in Chambly, Que. announced May 10 that it will temporarily close after at least 64 workers were diagnosed with COVID-19.

Les Aliments Cargill will close as of May 13 and will test all workers during the remainder of the week. A UFCW spokesperson told The Canadian Press that the plant will reopen when there are enough workers to operate it, who are not affected by the virus.

The plant said several measures had been previously put forward in the hope of avoiding an outbreak, such as the wearing of glasses, a visor and masks by the employees on the production line, as well as the installation of Plexiglas where possible.


The JBS meat-packing plant in Brooks, Alta. recorded 469 cases of COVID-19 and one death as of May 4. The plant has reduced operations to one shift a day but remains open.

A petition has been launched calling for a temporary two-week shutdown of the facility to limit the spread of the virus, and for an inspection to ensure public health measures are being upheld.

JBS and Cargill make up 70 per cent of Canada's beef processing, according to the Canadian Cattlemen's Association (CCA).

CCA Executive Vice President Dennis Laycraft told that the closure of these two plants has already created a backlog of market-ready animals.

"Cargill is one of our largest plants and combined with what's happening in JBS, that's basically pushing prices down as cattle are delayed to be sold. And we've seen prices since the plant closed dropped by about $500 an animal," Laycraft said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

To cope with the backlog, Laycraft said producers are keeping cattle on feed for longer to slow their growth.


Alberta Health Services (AHS) declared a coronavirus outbreak at the Harmony Beef meat-packing plant in Balzac, north of Calgary on March 26. It is the third meat plant in Alberta to be hit by an outbreak.

The first case was confirmed March 18, and officials say 36 COVID-19 cases had been linked to the plant as of May 5. The plant remains open.

In a statement, Harmony Beef said "we have provided new PPE surgical masks to everyone every day, dramatically increased sanitizing efforts, put in plexiglass dividers where possible and set up as much social distancing as possible."

The union representing the inspectors is calling on Harmony Beef and any other meat processing facility in Canada with COVID-19 outbreaks to be closed.


Pork processing plant Conestoga Meats in the Waterloo, Ont. region halted operations April 24 after seven of its employees tested positive for COVID-19. The company typically processes between 35,000 to 40,000 hogs a week.

The plant reopened with reduced staffing and operations on May 4. The company announced May 8 that the number of COVID-19 cases among its employees has increased to 44. The total number includes cases that are resolved and some employees who have returned to work.

The company says management has made it mandatory for all team members to wear personal protective equipment that covers the eyes, nose and mouth while on the job. Additional measures also include thermal imaging for temperature screening on-site, new dividers on the plant floor to support physical distancing, plexiglass table dividers in lunch rooms and more cleaning throughout the facility.

The Ontario Ministry of Labour is investigating two complaints filed April 22 about a lack of physical distancing procedures at the plant is ongoing.


The union representing employees at the Lilydale plant in Calgary is calling for the factory's closure after an employee tested positive for COVID-19.

The employee last worked at the plant on April 15 and then self-isolated at home. Sofina Foods, which owns the plant, says it remains fully operational and has taken a number of steps to protect its workers. However, the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada Union says physical distancing measures at the plant were not being followed and asked for it to be closed until proper health protocols are in place.


The United Poultry Co. Ltd. plant in Vancouver temporarily closed April 20 after at least 28 workers at the plant tested positive for COVID-19. As of May 1 there were 35 cases linked to United Poultry. The outbreak prompted a statement from B.C. Premier John Horgan who said that sick employees must stay home after learning that workers stayed on the job for fear of losing wages.

The plant remains shut down. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said in a news release that it has determined that a recall of chicken products from the plant is not required.

United Poultry Co.'s sister plant Superior Poultry also confirmed 52 cases of COVID-19 as of May 1. Health officials say investigations are ongoing at all plants.


Quebec's Olymel slaughterhouse closed March 29 after nine cases of COVID-19 were detected among its workforce. More than 100 workers at the facility were later found to have been infected.

The plant has since reopened following an increase in disinfection measures and screening activities issued by the region's health authorities. The plant’s entire workforce was in self-isolation during the closure and only those who have exhibited no symptoms have returned to work.


Major poultry plant Maple Leaf Foods located in Brampton, Ont. suspended operations April 8 after three people working at the facility tested positive for COVID-19.

The plant has since reopened following a deep cleaning of the plant, including common areas and offices.

An additional COVID-19 case was also confirmed in April at Maple Leaf Foods Heritage plant in Hamilton, Ont. However, the company says the plant remained open as the worker had not been at the plant for two weeks before the diagnosis.


As meat plants make changes to production, the impact is starting to be felt in grocery stores across the country with slower operations struggling to meet demand.

Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said in a statement emailed to that Canada has enough food amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but consumer might see higher prices and less variety on store shelves. She said the government’s main priority is ensuring the safety of meat plant workers.

"We fully recognize the health concerns of workers all across the agri-food sector. As with all essential workers, proper measures must be put in place if workers in our agricultural sector are going to feed Canadians during these difficult times," Bibeau said. "Together, we will get through this, and it gives us great pride to see our farmers and food sector workers stepping up in our time of need."

Laycraft said the sooner meat-packing plants make adjustments to their production lines so employees can safely return to work, the less likely there will be a meat shortage.

"Plants are actually putting in place literally hundreds of changes to ensure there's a safe workplace," Laycraft said. "We're hopeful that we'll get plants up and running and if we do, then we can avoid shortages. But if they continue to be idle, then then we will start to face shortages."

Restaurants and fast food chains are also starting to be impacted from Canadian meat plants closing or reducing operations.

McDonald's Canada said it will start importing beef as Canada's food supply chain struggles to meet demand amid changes in operations to meat plants amid COVID-19. The restaurant chain, which prides itself on using only Canadian beef, said in a statement released April 28 that it had to change its policy due to limited processing capacity at Canadian suppliers including those at Cargill Inc.

In the United States, President Donald Trump issued an executive order April 29 that meat-processing plants remain open to protect the country's food supply, despite concerns it puts employees at risk of catching the virus.

At least 15 large plants in the U.S., including major producer JBS USA, Smithfield Foods, and Tyson Foods, among others, have temporarily closed or reduced production due to outbreaks.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in April that beef producers and associations are prioritizing Canadian supply before exports to ensure there are no shortages.

Canada exports about 45 per cent of its beef and cattle production annually, according to the national association, and ships to 56 countries, with the U.S. receiving 74 per cent of beef exports.