Kitchener-Waterloo

Cargill announces temporary shutdown at meat processing plant in Guelph after COVID-19 outbreak

A Cargill meat processing plant in Guelph will temporarily shut down after a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility. Public health reported on Thursday that 82 employees have tested positive for the virus.

Company says it has 'stressed the importance' of employees staying home to self isolate

A Cargill meat processing plant in Guelph will shut down after everything currently in the facility is processed on Thursday after a large COVID-19 outbreak, the company says. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

A Cargill meat processing plant in Guelph "will begin the process to temporarily idle" on Thursday after a significant COVID-19 outbreak.

Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health announced Thursday afternoon that there have been 87 cases of the virus at the facility, while an additional 42 people are considered close contacts and have been told to self-isolate.

"Because of the scope of the outbreak there is a small but serious risk of transmission to the general community," public health said in a release.

The company says workers will finish processing what's in the facility on Thursday, then the plant will shut down. The company says it has "nearly 1.55 million meals-worth of protein" in the facility as of Thursday morning.

There is no timeline to reopen and the company says a decision will be made on a day-by-day basis.

"We are taking this step out of an abundance of caution as our local workforce deals with the community-wide impacts of COVID-19. As we work in partnership with the union, our employees will be paid the 36 hours per week as outlined in our collective agreement," a company spokesperson said in an email to CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.

Employees encouraged to self isolate

The company says it's encouraging all employees to be tested and it has "stressed the importance" of keeping a physical distance from other members of the community and to self isolate.

"We have encouraged any employees who are sick or have been exposed to anyone with COVID-19 in the last 14 days to stay home," the statement said.

In a statement, Jon Nash, the Cargill protein North America leader, says it was a difficult decision to close the plant because, as part of the food supply chain, it is an essential service.

"We care deeply about our employees and their safety. They are everyday heroes on the front lines of our food system. Our focus now is on continuing to keep our employees safe and getting our facility back to normal operations," he said.

'The situation is very severe'

Tim Deelstra, the spokesperson for United Food and Commercial Workers Locals 175 and 633, says the union has been having daily conversations with Cargill about the outbreak.

"Obviously the situation is very severe," he said. "Employees are going to be covered as per the collective agreement for this week. And we're having ongoing conversations with the employer about what the future will look like. Certainly, again, our role as the union is not only to protect their physical health and safety, but also to look after their economic health and safety, too."

He says the union will do a comprehensive review of the outbreak before agreeing to workers returning to the job.

"We will look at what the situation is around the testing, what the situation has been since the initial outbreaks, how the plant has been cleaned and through all those conversations with the employers, then decisions will be made about the return," he said.

Cases on the rise

Numbers released Thursday morning showed there were 77 new COVID-19 cases reported and 37 of those were in Guelph. Not all Cargill employees live in Guelph.

Dr. Matthew Tenenbaum, associate medical officer of health for Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health, said all outbreaks are serious, but outbreaks like this one put the whole community at risk.

"When we see an outbreak of this size, we must use all of the tools available to us to contain the outbreak and ensure the community at large is protected," he said.

"As cases rise in our region, we will be at more risk for outbreaks. That's why we must do all we can to keep cases low and respond quickly to any outbreaks."

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