Inspectors union calls for closure of 3rd Alberta meat plant with COVID-19 outbreak
34 cases connected to Harmony Beef, north of Calgary
A third meat-processing plant in Alberta is seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases, prompting the federal food inspectors union to call for the plant to be closed.
Alberta Health has connected 34 coronavirus cases to Harmony Beef in Balzac, just north of Calgary, as of Tuesday.
More than a month ago, the first case in the plant prompted the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to temporarily withdraw its inspectors from Harmony Beef over safety concerns.
Now with nearly three dozen cases connected to that outbreak, the plant remains open.
The union representing those inspectors is calling for Harmony Beef — and all other meat-processing facilities with infected employees — to be closed immediately.
Only a closure will fully stem the spread of COVID-19 among workers and their families, said Fabian Murphy, president of the Agriculture Union, which represents thousands of inspectors.
"Our position is whenever you have an outbreak like this, you have to shut the plant down. You have to get this under control," Murphy said Monday from Ottawa.
"We have to put the health and safety of those employees working at those plants at the forefront here. That has to be the top priority — people's lives."
Major outbreaks, worker dies
Alberta is facing two other COVID-19 outbreaks in meat-processing plants, one at JBS in Brooks and the other outside of High River at Cargill.
The Cargill outbreak — with nearly 1,000 related cases, including a worker who died from the illness — is considered the largest single-site outbreak in North America. The plant reopened Monday after a temporary closure.
A spokesperson for Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro declined to answer CBC's questions about Harmony Beef and the inspectors union's request.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Harmony Beef said it provides a new surgical mask to each employee at the start of their shift. The company said it has also increased cleaning, staggered the starting times of shifts, added Plexiglass separations, and prevented employees in the three sections of the plant from interacting with each other.
The company said it also tests each employee's temperature before their shift.
"In the 49 days since the first case was reported at Harmony we are aware of a total of 25 employee cases," spokesperson Crosbie Cotton said in an email. "There has been no hospitalizations and almost all cases were asymptomatic."
Carriers of COVID-19 can spread the virus through droplets, such as from coughs or sneezes, despite not showing symptoms themselves.
Murphy said he has spoken to food inspectors in Alberta who have said they're concerned about how closely workers are standing together while on the job.
He said he doesn't want to see Harmony become a third major outbreak, and would like to see closures last long enough that workers are past the 14-day cycle of when they might start showing symptoms.
"You have to give the folks the time to go through the incubation period to ensure they're not positive for COVID-19 before they go back to that work site," Murphy said.
Letter to prime minister
Prior to the news of the increase in Harmony Beef cases, Murphy and the Agriculture Union wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and various federal ministers asking them to step in to close meat plants, which are federally regulated, for 14 days after their first case is found, and to set national standards for how plants should respond to COVID-19.
"It's not a consistent approach in Alberta and it's not a consistent approach across the country," Murphy said. "I think there's a lot of political pressure to keep these plants open."
On Tuesday, Trudeau announced an aid package for food plants. He said the funds could be used for companies to buy personal protective equipment. Officials with the federal Agriculture Department stressed that worker safety is a provincial responsibility.
WATCH | Prime minister on federal role in health and safety of meat plant employees:
CFIA has food inspectors stationed in every federally regulated meat-processing plant in the country. Companies cannot operate without the inspectors present.
CFIA withdrew its inspectors from Harmony Beef on March 27 after the first COVID-19 case was reported, the agency said in a statement. Harmony then closed the plant.
That same day, Alberta Occupational Health and Safety officials conducted a "live, virtual inspection" of the facility, a Labour Ministry spokesperson said. The company was then directed to provide workers with COVID-19 safety documentation.
The plant reopened March 31.
Alberta Health Services last inspected Harmony Beef on April 28. CFIA said its staff accompanied AHS staff for the on-site visit. Neither agency explained what the inspectors found.
AHS also said it had established a task force in the Calgary zone to handle COVID-19 at meat-packing facilities.
With files from Andrew Brown