Producers pray Alta. hog plant re-opens quickly


A reopening date for Olymel’s Red Deer hog processing plant had not been set as of Feb. 22 so plant officials and prairie hog producers are making contingency plans.

Olymel announced temporary closure on Feb. 15 after a major outbreak of COVID-19 among workers. As of Feb. 21 there were 445 cases linked to the plant and one worker has died.

“I can’t tell you today which date we’ll be able to resume operations,” said Richard Vigneault of Olymel corporate communications in a Feb. 22 interview.

“We are working every day with AHS (Alberta Health Services), OHS (Occupational Health and Safety), UFCW 401 (the local for the United Food and Commercial Workers union) at the plant to try to put together all conditions needed for a safe reopening and resume operations, we wish as soon as we can. But the main condition, the first priority, will be the assurance of a safe environment and health and safety of our employees.”

Hog producers are hoping for a two-week closure, a “circuit-breaker” to halt the spread of the virus.

“They’re keeping us informed… but my assessment would be that they’re in the circuit-breaker program so hopefully what that means, if it’s consistent with Cargill Foods and with packing plants in the East that closed down, that they’ll be closed for 14 days to clean and disinfect and sort of break the incubation period,” said Alberta Pork chair Brent Moen.

In the meantime, Moen and others in the industry are seeking options so hog producers can manage animals until processing resumes.

“They basically have one option right now and that’s to pray that this only lasts for 14 days,” said Moen.

“Most producers I think can hold, if you’re shipping a load a week, you can probably squeeze them into pens and keep them for a two-week period and manage around it. Obviously, they’ll be heavier, but that’s your best alternative.

“The reality is the other packing plants in Western Canada are all saying that they’re full. They can’t take any pigs. It’s sort of ironic in some regards that Maple Leaf Foods in Brandon has been bringing 3,000 to 4000 pigs out of Ontario a week but they don’t have any room to take pigs from Alberta. But that’s a business decision that they will make, I guess.”

Smaller plants including Sunterra Meats in Trochu, Alta., and Thunder Creek Pork in Moose Jaw, Sask., have taken some extra loads to help out, said Moen, but their respective capacities are limited.

Olymel slaughters 45,000 hogs a week when running at speed.

Pork officials are also looking for feeder pig placements, likely in the United States. By shipping feeders elsewhere, producers would have room to hold their heavier and finished hogs for a while longer, Moen said, though it is a short-term solution.

Olymel itself, which operates its own hog production facility, said it would move “a substantial amount of company-owned production to the United States to create enough plant capacity for all independent hog producers affected by the plant closure.”

The company estimated the backlog of fat hogs created by the closure to be 80,000 to 90,000 animals. Once the plant resumes operations, Olymel said it anticipated the backlog could be cleared within four to five weeks.

However, the duration of the shutdown remains a concern. Alberta Health earlier estimated that about 60 percent of the plant’s 1,850 employees hold second jobs outside the plant, raising concerns about community spread.

“While the union is blaming Olymel for the problem, I’m not actually sure that the disease wasn’t picked up in the community, instead of in the plant, but I don’t know. Probably we’ll never know,” said Moen.

Workers held a protest outside the Red Deer plant on Feb. 17 and the union has asked that Olymel pay its employees during the closure.

Vigneault said that is not going to happen.

“As a matter of fact we are doing a lot to help (the employees). It’s a case of what we call force majeure. So there’s a labour agreement that was just renewed and signed a few weeks ago and when there’s a case of force majeure and we are forced to cease operations, it’s like a layoff.”

He said employees have been provided with information about options available, including employment insurance, the Alberta Critical Workers Benefit Program and federal government programs related to pandemic assistance.

As well, Olymel continues to provide health insurance benefits to its employees and has a wage advance program, Vigneault said.

The City of Red Deer and Alberta Health Services are co-ordinating support for Olymel’s workers during the shutdown. While several positive cases of COVID-19 occurred at the plant in November, a major surge started in late January leading to today’s situation.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief health officer, said the plant was in compliance with recommended health measures and Olymel made its own decision to temporarily close.

She said the cases that occurred at the plant were not necessarily acquired at the plant.