Nova Scotia poultry plant with COVID-19 outbreak wants to reopen
Plant operators asking Public Health to allow reopening at reduced capacity
The poultry plant in Berwick, N.S., that's trying to quash an outbreak of COVID-19 among its staff is creating a plan to reopen sooner than originally called for by Public Health, hoping provincial officials will sign off and let a "skeleton crew" return to work before the holidays.
Eden Valley Poultry shut down all operations last week after COVID-19 entered the facility and was apparently transmitted between staff. Out of about 450 employees, an initial round of testing revealed six cases. A second round of testing is supposed to take place this week.
The current plan that's approved by Public Health is to reopen on Dec. 28, but president Werner Barnard told CBC last week that a closure of that length is mired with risks and challenges for the whole poultry industry in the Maritimes, as well as for consumers.
Eden Valley is the only federally regulated poultry processor in Nova Scotia and takes in about 400,000 chickens and turkeys each week from producers in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island — birds that now need an alternative processor.
In an interview Tuesday, Barnard said "quite a bit of progress" had been made this week to find processors in New Brunswick that can take birds that were destined for Eden Valley.
But plants in New Brunswick use a different system for catching and transporting birds than what's used by Eden Valley.
"We use modules … whereas the other processors use a crate system, which is a lot more labour intensive than what we are currently used to. So therefore, the catching at a farm level is a lot slower than what would normally be the case."
Barnard said that means it's too early to tell how many birds the plant will be able to divert.
Birds could be euthanized
He said they're "desperately trying" to prevent it, but it's possible some birds will have to be killed and discarded, rather than processed for food, if the plant remains closed according to the current plan.
"We are engaging with the department of Public Health to see if there's any possible way that we could run a skeleton staff at our facility to help make up the difference," Barnard said.
"If we cannot get all the birds shipped up to other processors or we cannot process any more birds through our plant, then yes, [euthanizing birds] becomes a real reality."
Barnard said a proposal, the details of which he said are still being finalized, will be submitted to the province this week. He said he suspects its approval will be at least partly contingent on the results of a second round of staff testing, due to start on Thursday.
In the meantime, Public Health has advised Eden Valley employees to self-isolate. Barnard said management has decided to pay staff 100 per cent of their wages while they're self-isolating. They'll be seeking to recoup some of those costs through existing provincial and federal COVID-19 relief programs.