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Meat-processing plants prone to COVID-19 outbreaks

A man walks into a Cargill meat processing factory in Chambly, Que., south of Montreal, Sunday, May 10, 2020. The plant is closing temporarily after at least 64 workers tested positive for COVID-19. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)

MONTREAL (CITYNEWS) – COVID-19 outbreaks in meat-processing plants across the country has some Canadians worried about the access and safety of eating meat.

The Cargill meat-processing plant in Chambly, Que., where 64 cases of COVID-19 were reported a few days ago, shut down Wednesday for cleaning.

The Cargill plant in High River, Alta., was also closed after nearly 1,000 COVID-19 cases and three deaths. After a two-week closure, Canada’s largest beef-processing plant has now reopened.

So why are meat-processing plants so prone to outbreaks?

“It’s plus 3 (degrees), it’s like working in a fridge, so a virus can spread very quickly,” said Sylvain Charlebois, director of Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University. “And on top of the fact that people are working close to each other as well, and some of these facilities weren’t well designed to protect workers from a pandemic.”

With that slowdown in production, Canadian fast food restaurants are trying to reassure customers not to worry about the supply of hamburgers – especially after some U.S. chains have been removing beef items from their menus.

McDonald’s Canada is temporarily importing beef into the country until Canada stabilizes its own supply. Angus burgers have been removed from their menus.

Another fast food chain, Wendy’s Canada, is also making some beef items temporarily unavailable.

“In terms of access, it could be a problem,” said Charlebois. “For a while, the (Chambly) facility will be idle. But the safety of the food is not compromised because of COVID-19.

“We’re not going to run out of meat. It’s just not going to be perfect for a while. And we actually are expecting that situation to last for at least another month.”

RELATED: Report finds workers not consulted in Cargill investigation

Charlebois says Canadians may have to be more patient and selective when shopping for certain cuts of meat at grocery stores. But he does not expect a shortage, or for prices to rise.

In Montreal, meat distributor Les Aliments Pro-Marque have had two employees contract COVID-19. They are both self-isolating for 14 days before returning to work.

“At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the distributor’s vice-president Peter Triassi, “we implemented additional safety measures across our facility including, but not limited to, daily employee screening, masking, disinfecting all surfaces daily, disinfectant stations, social distancing, and a strict isolation and contact tracing policy of suspected cases.”