VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – The novel coronavirus is likely to spur permanent changes to food supply chains that will leave Canadians paying more for meat – and possibly eating less of it – for years to come.
That’s according to Lenore Newman, director of the Food and Agriculture Institute and professor of geography at the University of the Fraser Valley.
Overall, the country’s food system “has really performed well” during the pandemic, Newman said, adding, “it’s incredible that we still have food in stores given the magnitude of the change.”
Meat processing plants ‘an ideal viral transmission zone’
But, Newman said, a series of outbreaks at Canadian meat processing plants have exposed the weaknesses in a highly centralized system optimized for profitability.
As of Monday, 484 cases and one death of a worker had been linked to a Cargill facility near High River, Alta., that processes more than a third of Canadian beef. A JBS plant in Brooks, Alta., had recorded 67 cases.
The Cargill plant has been temporarily shut down but JBS said it plans to remain open despite the Agriculture Union, which represents inspectors, calling for a two-week closure.
A Cargill employee said workers were not supplied with adequate personal protective equipment such as face shields.
Before the plant shut down a company spokesperson said Cargill was “focused on the health, safety and wellbeing” while trying to remain open as an essential service.
More than 25 workers at a chicken processing plant in East Vancouver have tested positive for the virus, Vancouver Coastal Health said Tuesday.
“Workers in those plants are extremely close together, in extremely humid conditions … an ideal viral transmission zone,” Newman said.
Meat prices likely to rise as supplies drop
Meat packers are likely to see their efficiency drop as they reconfigure workplaces to adhere to physical distancing guidelines – and consumers can expect to see higher prices and lower supplies at the grocery store, according to Newman.
“It’s just going to get a little harder to source meat for a while, and I think we just need to weather it,” she said.
Dennis Laycraft, executive vice president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, said it’s too early to tell what permanent effects the pandemic could have on the beef supply chain.
Cargill has already installed 450 plexiglass dividers to prevent the virus from spreading once the plant reopens and plants have supplied gloves, masks and visors to workers, he said.
“At this stage, as we’re looking at the plants, it’s certainly had some impacts on slowing down the lines,” Laycraft said at a virtual town hall Tuesday. “Hopefully we can get back to close to normal levels in the near future.”
He said plants may have to start working overtime and through weekends to begin clearing the backlog of cattle awaiting processing, adding he hopes the 2,000-employee Cargill plant reopens as soon as possible.
Poultry supply chain remains strong, leaders say
Meanwhile, two organizations representing poultry farmers in B.C. said their supply chains remained strong and safe as demand shifts from closed restaurants to grocery stores and other suppliers serving at-home cooks.
Late last week, Canadian meal-prep-kit company Goodfood blamed “disruptions in the supply chain” as it told customers they may receive pre-cooked chicken rather than the fresh product they ordered.
Cheryl Davie, a spokesperson for B.C.’s Chicken Marketing Board, said the province’s “supply chain remains intact and there is plenty of chicken to supply the local market.”
United Poultry, the Vancouver facility shut down due to a coronavirus outbreak, “processes a small amount of all chicken in B.C. and we expect the product will be shifted to other plants,” Davie said in an email.
“All members of our supply chain meet regularly with industry and government to discuss how we can maintain fluidity during COVID-19,” she said.
Michel Benoit, general manager of the B.C. Turkey Marketing Board, said his 64 member farmers, mostly located in the Fraser Valley, have seen demand drop from restaurants but their supply chain remains strong while adjusting to physical distancing protocols.
He said smaller poultry processors pose a lower risk of transmission than massive cattle plants such as Cargill.
“We have not heard of any drastic changes at the processing plants,” Benoit said.
Benoit made the comments on Tuesday, before the United Poultry outbreak became public. NEWS 1130 has since asked whether his perspective has changed but he has not responded.
‘Don’t panic if you see an empty shelf’
Newman, the food security expert, said the disruptions to Canada’s meat supply chains may seem troubling but they also provide an opportunity for positive change.
“My advice to consumers is don’t panic if you see an empty shelf, just be a little flexible,” she said.
As millions of Canadians spend more time at home, Newman said now is a great time to experiment with cooking non-meat proteins such as beans, lentils, legumes, and tofu – all of which are produced in Canada.
And, she said, if labour practices improve and processing becomes somewhat less efficient at processing plants, “we might pay a little more for meat, but I don’t know that’s a bad thing.”
Such changes could make smaller-scale local producers who raise higher-quality meat more competitive, she said.
‘Now is definitely a good time’ to contact a local farmer
Julia Smith, president of B.C.’s Small-Scale Meat Producers Association, said independent farmers already offer competitive prices and “if grocery store prices go up even more, then yeah, we’re definitely going to be closing the gap.”
Association members primarily sell directly to consumers, with some also selling to restaurants and smaller grocers, said Smith, who owns Blue Sky Ranch, a pig farm in Merritt, B.C.
Small scale meat producers have seen a “pretty big jump in sales” during the pandemic she said.
“People seem to be stocking up,” Smith said. “Now is definitely a good time to reach out and develop a relationship with a local farmer.”
Smith said her association is pushing for regulations that will make it easier for farmers to slaughter animals on their own property, allowing them to expand and better serve their local markets demanding locally produced food more than ever.
“[The pandemic] has really got people’s attention and has people talking about the importance of local food security and the supply chain and the importance of having that food sovereignty for feeding our families.”