Wayzata-based agribusiness giant Cargill Inc. temporarily closed its beef processing plant in High River, Alberta, on Monday. The move came as Alberta’s top health official said that there are now 484 cases of Covid-19 connected to the Cargill plant. Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw also confirmed on Monday that one worker at the Cargill facility has died.
The union representing workers at the plant had called for it to be closed a week ago. Last Monday, the union indicated that it was aware of 38 cases at the Cargill plant. Last Friday, Dr. Hinshaw said that there were 358 cases in households connected to the plant. The latest numbers on Monday marked a 35 percent increase just since Friday.
“Effective today, we have begun the process to temporarily idle Cargill’s High River facility. Considering the community-wide impacts of the virus, we encourage all employees to get tested for the Covid-19 virus as now advised by Alberta Health Services as soon as possible,” said Jon Nash, the North American leader of Cargill Protein, in a statement issued Monday.
“This was a difficult decision for our team who are operating an essential service and are committed to delivering food for local families, access to markets for ranchers, products for our customers’ shelves, and jobs for local employees.”
Nash added that the company is encouraging employees not to come to work if they are sick, will offer up to 80 hours of paid leave for “Covid-related circumstances,” and is adding numerous safety measures, including temperature testing for employees, providing face coverings and “adopting social distancing practices.”
Nash said that “Alberta Health Services has approved and supports all the protocols we have put in place,” and noted that the company had started implementing the new safety measures during the first week in March.
But a Monday report from CBC said Nash’s comments were at odds with what they had been told by workers at the plant: “That runs counter to what several employees told CBC News about cramped conditions and working elbow to elbow. Some even said managers tried to encourage them to return to work even though they were isolating with symptoms.”
In a Monday update about Covid-19 cases in Alberta, Dr. Hinshaw addressed the cases related to the Cargill facility.
“I want to take a moment to clarify case numbers related to the Cargill facility in High River. There are 360 cases in workers from that plant related to that outbreak, but there has also been spread in the community beyond these workers, with 484 total cases linked to that outbreak,” said Dr. Hinshaw. “Not all of these cases are people who work at that plant. Many of these cases live in surrounding communities such as Calgary.”
Health officials in Alberta are looking at large households where “there may not be the resources or the space for self-isolation to happen.”
Cargill’s High River plant, which employs about 2,000 workers, is about 40 miles south of Calgary in the province of Alberta.
“I would like to emphasize that the safety and health of Albertans is our top priority. As Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Hinshaw stated, Alberta’s meat plants and our food supply is safe,” said Devin Dreeshen, Alberta’s Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, in a Monday evening statement to Twin Cities Business.
“The High River cases are connected to a unique community spread and are not related to working conditions in the plant. AHS [Alberta Health Services] has increased testing of employees and workers should be reassured that only healthy workers will return to work in this essential service,” added Dreeshen.
According to a CBC report, the majority of the workers at the facility are Filipino. The plant workers are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. In an April 12 letter to Cargill, Thomas Hesse, president of UFCW Local 401, called for “an immediate two-week closure of your plant to conduct a comprehensive assessment of its safety.”
Cargill is the largest privately-held company in the U.S. For its fiscal 2019, which ended on May 31, 2019, the company reported revenue of $113.5 billion. Cargill has 160,000 employees in 70 countries.
Covid-19 cases are emerging at many meat processing plants. The plants are typically designed for maximum production efficiency and employees work very close to each other.
On Monday morning, Colorado-based JBS USA announced the “indefinite closure” of its pork processing facility in the southwestern Minnesota city of Worthington. On April 12, Virginia-based Smithfield Food Inc. closed its pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, after hundreds of employees there tested positive for the virus.
“We care deeply about our employees. They are everyday heroes of the food system and each person continues to be a valued member of our team. To prevent food waste, we will process approximately 3 million meals currently in our facility as quickly as possible. We greatly appreciate our employees who are working to complete this effort,” said Cargill’s Nash.
“While this location is temporarily idled and we adapt to operating during a pandemic, our work doesn’t stop. Cargill provides an essential service to Canada — producing food that nourishes people. We are working with farmers and ranchers, our customers and our employees to supply food in this time of crisis and keep markets moving,” said Nash.