Pandemic reveals weak spots in B.C.'s meat, poultry supply chains
Closures at processing plants leave farmers with no way to get their product to market
Closures at meat and poultry processing plants in B.C and Alberta due to COVID-19 have brought the vulnerabilities of Canada's food supply chain into closer focus.
On Wednesday, two more poultry-processing plants in B.C.'s Lower Mainland announced they had positive COVID-19 cases.
One of the affected plants, Fraser Valley Specialty Poultry, was shut down, although the other — Sofina Foods Lilydale plant in Port Coquitlam — has remained open for now. Two other facilities in Vancouver and Coquitlam which were the site of two separate outbreaks closed last week.
Ken Falk, president of Fraser Valley Speciality Poultry, says the poultry industry believes the closures could spell trouble for the local supply chain.
"It's what you call an 'on-time' industry. We're processing fresh product for the market today or tomorrow. It is concerning, obviously, when the plants close down," he said.
Farmers are already preparing for the worst.
Kendall Ballantine, who produces poultry, beef and pork on her farm in Langley, B.C., says chicken is an especially difficult product to delay processing.
"We can push back beef and we can push back pork to a certain degree [even though] it becomes very expensive because we're feeding the animals much longer," Ballantine said. "With chicken, because they grow so quickly, it's not good for the bird to be able to be pushed back."
If her poultry-processing time is delayed, her birds may grow too large and eventually become unsaleable.
And it's not just the closure of local poultry-processing plants that have affected B.C. farmers. Alberta's High River beef-processing plant, owned by Cargill, is at the centre of a COVID-19 outbreak in the province with nearly 600 confirmed cases. It has been shuttered for 14 days and its closure has led to a significant drop in the country's beef processing capacity.
Kevin Boon, general manager of the B.C. Cattlemen's Association, estimates about 40 to 45 per cent of B.C. beef usually ends up being processed at the Cargill plant.
"If we're not moving product through that processing plant, the cattle start to back up throughout the chain," Boon said.
Cattle rancher Brian Fowley is worried the shutdown of the Cargill plant will leave animals stranded at feedlots waiting to go to slaughter.
"It's going to make a huge backlog of cattle," Fowley said. "There could be upwards of a million head backed up, which would take a year or two to clean out."
Fowley said this whole ordeal could mean the end of business for some cattle ranchers.
"Worst case scenario, you go bankrupt," he said.
Watch how COVID-19 is affecting Canada's meat supply chain across the country:
Ballantine says a shutdown of processing plants hit farmers in the pocket because agriculture has "very, very slim" margins.
"I can speak for B.C. in saying we have too few processing facilities. So when we're getting hit, it makes a great impact," she said.
She says it might be time to revisit how meat processing is done in the province by turning to a more decentralized system that empowers smaller producers like herself.
"If there's a silver lining in any of this, it's that the government starts looking at giving supports to the farmers directly so that we can have a little bit more control [around processing], because right now we raise animals and we, at this point, don't know if we can get them processed and to the homes of people in our province."
If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
With files from Tina Lovgreen, Courtney Dickson, and Daybreak Kamloops