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Cargill taking proper precautions, officials say

The province has confirmed 358 of Alberta’s known cases of COVID-19 are linked to the High River-area plant's employees and their households.
There are 358 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus linked to High River Cargill plant employees. (Wheel File Photo)

OKOTOKS — More than 10 per cent of Alberta’s total COVID-19 cases are now linked to an outbreak at the High River Cargill plant, but officials say the facility is doing its due diligence.

On April 16, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, chief medical officer of health for Alberta, confirmed 358 of the province’s known cases of the novel coronavirus were linked to Cargill employees and their households. The total number of cases in Alberta as of April 19 was 2,803.

“Some of these households are in surrounding communities, such as Calgary, and current information suggests that the cases in this outbreak are primarily linked to household transmission,” said Hinshaw during her update on Friday.

She added the plant, which employs about 2,000 people and provides nearly 40 per cent of the processed beef in western Canada, was doing its due diligence and that “all appropriate measures are being taken,” indicating she had no cause for concern with how the situation is being handled.

After a teleconference town hall meeting with its employees on April 18, Cargill Protein-North America lead Jon Nash released a statement outlining the company’s commitment to keeping facilities open while ensuring its staff and customers remain safe.

“We remain focused on the health, safety and wellbeing of our Cargill employees as we all face the impacts of COVID-19 in High River,” said Nash, who works out of Wichita, Kansas. “Our values guide our decisions. We will not operate if we can’t do so safely or meet our high food quality standards.”

He said decisions are being made on a day-to-day basis and despite food processing being an essential service, it’s been a challenge to keep the High River plant operational during the outbreak.

As a counter-measure, the company eliminated its second shift and has staggered shift and break start times for those still able to work. In addition, Cargill is providing face masks for employees, enhancing its cleaning and sanitizing practices, prohibiting visitors, increasing physical distance between employees on the floor, and providing alternate transportation options for workers to eliminate the need to carpool.

Cargill is also educating its employees on the importance of social distancing at work as well as at home, and the importance of remaining in quarantine and how return-to-work timing will roll out.

Nash said decisions and policies are being made in conjunction with Alberta Health Services and local officials, who have approved the facility’s new policies and procedures.

“We are part of this community. Our team members live and work in High River,” said Nash. “We are concerned about the number of cases and want to work with everyone – policymakers, labor and our neighbors – to focus on keeping people healthy and delivering safe food to people across Canada.”

However, Thomas Hesse, president of the United Food and Commercial Worker Local 401, said it’s still not enough.

The union held its own tele-town-hall with almost 2,000 food processing members on April 19, including workers from High River Cargill and the JBS plant in Brooks.

During the call, employees were asked poll questions and could answer by pressing a number on their phone and 75 per cent indicated they didn’t believe the government and company were doing enough to keep them safe; 85 per cent said there were days they felt afraid to go to work; and 75 per cent said they don’t feel they’re being adequately compensated for the risks they’re taking.

Hesse said those numbers are proof Cargill hasn’t done enough to assuage its employees concerns and there is still a problem.

“Our position is the same – the pause button should be hit, employees should be sent home maybe now more than ever,” he said. “They took a half-measure to try to solve the problem, and it’s not a time for half-measures.”

He said if people can be fined $1,000 for touching a playground in their neighbourhood, the government should not be allowing hundreds of workers to enter a single workplace.

It’s not about issues with the work being done, but he said the physical configuration of plants and how meat processing is done leave workers vulnerable.

Foothills MP John Barlow said he’s been part of the telephone calls and with Cargill, Alberta Health Services, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the Alberta minister of agriculture, and Livingstone-Macleod MLA Roger Reid since the situation unfolded over the Easter long weekend.

He believes the company is taking appropriate precautions to ensure it remains safe for employees and is able to continue providing food supply.

“They’ve slowed down the kill line, they’ve ensured employees are practising social distancing, they put in plexi-glass barriers and staggered shifts and breaks so people aren’t passing each other in the hallways,” said Barlow.

He said if people are feeling ill they should be isolating and not going to work, but those who are able to work shouldn’t feel concerned about going to Cargill with its COVID-19 procedures in place.

“I understand the anxiety of having so many positive COVID cases in the community, but I think what’s important is those who are not feeling well or ill or have tested positive are staying home and isolating for the 14 days, but those who are able to work we certainly encourage them to do so,” said Barlow.

Alberta Health Services and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency are both satisfied Cargill has complied with their directives and has taken appropriate steps to ensure the health and safety of those working at the plant, he said.

Over the past six weeks since COVID-19 took root in Canada, there’s been a new appreciation for protecting the country’s food supply and being self-sufficient in production, he said.

Despite asking Canadians to stay home, he said farmers, ranchers and processing plant employees are working every day to ensure families have food on the table and grocery stores can stock their shelves.

“Cargill employees are an integral part of that food supply chain and that’s why the Alberta government and federal government have stated agriculture and food are essential services and critical infrastructure,” said Barlow. “At a time like this we need to ensure that supply chain remains intact, and that’s why it’s so important facilities like Cargill remain operational.”

Krista Conrad,

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