N.S. poultry plant closure a blow to operators, community, and maybe Christmas turkey supply
Eden Valley Poultry is helping local producers find out-of-province processors
The closure of a poultry plant in Berwick, N.S., where an outbreak of COVID-19 was detected this week is a blow to operators, employees, the town and could even be felt by Nova Scotians looking to buy a Christmas turkey.
Most involved say it was the right thing to do, but some in the industry are calling for the shutdown to be shortened.
Berwick Mayor Don Clarke said it's had an immediately noticeable impact on the town, causing business and traffic to go quiet.
Eden Valley Poultry is Berwick's biggest employer and the biggest customer for the town's self-owned electric utility, according to Clarke. It also draws its employees, about 450, from around the Annapolis Valley.
Clarke said the economic impact of the two-week closure isn't measurable yet from the town's perspective, but he expects that in the long-term, it will have been worth it.
"Having COVID in a plant that size with that many people in confined spaces and so on, is a serious situation," said Clarke.
"What they're doing is the necessary thing to do."
Public Health ordered the closure of the poultry facility earlier this week after finding two cases of the virus among employees. Widespread testing has since revealed four more, with some results still pending and plans to re-test all employees next week.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang announced Friday the plant would have to stay closed for at least two weeks in an effort to disrupt the cycle of transmission.
That two-week order runs until Christmas day, but Eden Valley president Werner Barnard said they'll wait until the following Monday, Dec. 28, to reopen.
'Devastating' impact for the business
"I think any business that shuts its doors for two weeks has a devastating financial impact, that's a given," said Barnard.
But, he added, the nature of Eden Valley's business means the impact extends to every other business in the supply chain.
Over the course of the planned closure, Barnard said the plant would have processed more than 800,000 chickens and turkeys. Eden Valley works with about 60 producers in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island and has customers across the country and internationally.
Barnard said even though the plant isn't operating, there's still lots of work happening with producers, customers and other processors to mitigate the effects of Eden Valley's closure.
As the only federally regulated poultry processor in Nova Scotia, Barnard said some birds that would have gone through Eden Valley will likely now be shipped out of province for processing, possibly limiting the local supply.
He called that "a blow to the community," in light of the upcoming Christmas demand for turkeys, and a concern for food security.
In a news release Saturday, the Chicken Farmers of Nova Scotia also flagged its concern about food security. It said it may not be possible to find alternative processors for all the birds that were slated to go to Eden Valley this month.
Chair Thom Oulton said the industry group was disappointed with the province's shutdown order, and called for employee testing to be accelerated to allow the plant to reopen more quickly.
"These are essential workers who process our food and processing those [COVID-19] tests should be a priority," Oulton said in the news release.
"Protecting people's health has to be the number one priority, but the security of our food supply is important to human health, too."
Oulton suggested the plant may be able to operate at reduced capacity to help control the outbreak.
Employee paycheques in limbo
While employees await the second round of testing, Public Health has instructed them to self-isolate.
Among those waiting for test results is Lee Gee, who has worked at the plant for 40 years, including more than 30 years under a previous owner.
While he waits, Gee said he's being kept busy with phone calls from other Eden Valley labourers. Gee is the president of Unifor Local 2261, which represents about 360 Eden Valley employees.
"Everybody is concerned about their health … and this close to Christmas, with everything going on, with their pay," Gee said in an interview.
Barnard said he could not guarantee paycheques would be going out as usual during the closure, but "employee welfare and financial security" were on his mind.
"Obviously this time of year it's devastating for employees not to be able to work and earn money … we're busy investigating all options but yes, the intent is to do right by the employees."
Otherwise, Gee said he was satisfied with Eden Valley's response to the outbreak, and he felt the necessary preventive steps had been taken, like scanning employees' body temperatures as they enter each day, installing Plexiglas barriers and enforcing masking and physical distancing.
Public Health says there's no evidence of community spread in Western Nova Scotia, but there was another case of COVID-19 detected in Berwick earlier this week, in addition to the cases at the poultry plant.
A case connected to the Berwick and District School meant that school closed for deep cleaning and contact tracing for several days.
Public Health has since increased testing opportunities in the area, sending one of the province's mobile testing vans and setting up walk-in testing sites.
The walk-in testing will be available at two sites in the area, beginning Sunday:
- The Berwick Fire Hall (300 Commercial St., Berwick) on Sunday, Dec. 13 and Monday, Dec. 14 from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. The site will be closed between 4:30-5:30 p.m.
- The Mobile Unit at the Middleton Fire Hall (131 Commercial St., Middleton) on Monday, Dec. 14 from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Tuesday, Dec. 15 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.