Employee of Calgary chicken plant tests positive for COVID-19 as union calls for closure

An employee of a southeast Calgary chicken processing plant has tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the union to call for a closure, citing "cramped" quarters that hamper physical distancing.

The Lilydale plant, located in Ramsay at 2126 Hurst Road S.E., is owned by Sofina Foods Inc. The company operates 16 plants across Canada.

The company said it was informed Tuesday by Alberta Health Services that one of its employees had tested positive for the coronavirus.

The employee is self-isolating at home and following AHS guidance, according to an email to CBC News from Daniele Dufour, senior director of communications, public relations and consumer inquiries for Sofina Foods.

Sofina Foods said the plant remains fully operational and has taken a number of steps to protect its workers.

"We met and reviewed our current COVID-19 practices with the Alberta Health Services, who confirmed that all necessary measures had been taken to protect the health of our employees and prevent further spread of the virus in the plant," Dufour wrote.

But the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada Union said it had sent a letter to Sofina Foods on Tuesday calling for the plant's closure.

"That plant in particular, it's an older facility, there are cramped quarters … listening to the members, we were getting so many calls as soon as the first case was announced," said UFCW local 401 spokesperson Michael Hughes.

"This is one case, but if Cargill has taught us anything … the way this virus is spreading, we have no idea how extensive this can be."

COVID-19 has taken a particularly hard toll on the meat-packing sector.

A shutdown of an Olymel plant in Quebec was followed by Harmony Foods near Calgary and the Cargill plant near High River, Alta.

As of Wednesday, there were 580 cases linked to the outbreak at the Cargill facility — which is the largest outbreak in the country linked to a single location— and one worker has died.

The JBS meat plant in Brooks had 96 cases linked to it as of Wednesday and remains open, but production has been reduced to one shift.

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As of Wednesday night, Hughes said the union had yet to receive a response to its letter.

"[At Cargill] you went from five cases on a Thursday to 38 on Sunday then 358 on Friday. And now we're over 500 [Cargill linked cases]," Hughes said.

"We can't hesitate on this. If we're wrong calling for the closure and it saves one life, that's OK."

The company says that as part of its COVID-19 preparation, it took steps to minimize risks to employees, including:

  • Ongoing disinfection of offices, equipment and common areas.

  • Physical distancing where feasible.

  • Staggered breaks.

  • Plexiglas separations for employees working in production.

  • Enhanced communication on good hygiene practices.

  • Providing face shields to employees.

  • Temperature checks for anyone entering its facilities.

  • A ban on travel and limiting visits to facilities to essential needs only.

Alberta Health Services said it could not provide comment on individual cases Wednesday night.

The Lilydale plant is slated to move from Ramsay into the Dufferin North industrial area once construction is complete on a 268,000 square-foot facility.