Forty meat plant inspectors in Canada — 21 of them in Alberta — have contracted COVID-19, according to their union, prompting a senator to call for workers and the integrity of the food safety system to be protected.
Among the infected are 18 of the 37 inspectors at Cargill meat plant near High River, south of Calgary. That plant is the site of the largest single outbreak in Canada.
The numbers were first tweeted by Sen. Paula Simons on Wednesday. The Agriculture Union, which represents some 1,000 inspectors who work for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) at slaughterhouses and meat-processing plants, later confirmed them with CBC News.
"Cattlemen and feed lot operators face huge problems, if packing plants can't operate. I get that," Simons, who is from Edmonton, wrote on Twitter.
"But we need to be certain that the beef we send to the tables of Canadians is safe and properly inspected, by healthy, experienced inspectors, and up to federal standards."
One of the Alberta inspectors, Simons said, became so ill, they were put on a ventilator. She said she has sent a long list of questions to the CFIA and was waiting to hear back.
"While we can't catch COVID from a hamburger or steak, there are plenty of other health risks that CFIA inspectors watch for," Simons wrote. "And long-term, we do the beef industry no favours if people don't have confidence in the beef we produce and eat."
The CFIA said in an emailed statement that it is aware of 39 employees, not just inspectors, who have tested positive for COVID-19 between March 23 and May 12. That number does not include those who have since returned to work, the agency said.
The agency said it is following health and safety guidance and is providing masks and face shields to all meat inspectors. Inspectors and veterinarians also complete a pre-shift health questionnaire and are asked to stay home if sick.
"When cases of COVID-19 occur in a food processing establishment, the CFIA works with local public health authorities to determine the level of risk of exposure for CFIA employees, and their need for self-isolation and/or referral to health services for testing," a spokesperson for the agency said in an emailed statement Wednesday evening.
Besides the 21 Alberta cases, 11 meat plant inspectors have been infected in Quebec, six in Ontario and two in British Columbia, union president Fabian Murphy said by email.
Earlier in May, the union called for the closure of the three Alberta meat plants with outbreaks. Meat processing plants must have CFIA inspectors on site in order to operate.
Murphy said at the time inspectors were concerned about how closely workers stood to each other on processing lines.
The union represents all CFIA inspectors. Other inspectors are employed by provinces and municipalities.
Multiple plants affected
In an interview, Simons said the concentration of inspectors testing positive for COVID-19 in Alberta — particularly the 18 cases at Cargill — shocked her and suggested "a serious problem with the kind of safety protocols that those inspectors had."
The outbreak at the Cargill plant has been linked to more than 1,500 confirmed cases — including nearly 950 of its workers — and three deaths.
JBS Foods in Brooks, Alta., also has had a worker died and more than 600 connected cases.
Harmony Beef in Balzac, Alta., has had 38 cases among its workers as of Monday. At the time of the first case, CFIA inspectors were pulled from the Harmony plant until it was cleared by an occupation health and safety inspection.
Pork and chicken processing plants have also had to close for a time.
Alberta Health also said it had counted cases between three pork and chicken processing plants but the numbers were too low to qualify as official outbreaks.
As a senator, Simons said she is focusing on the federal government's role in worker and food safety.
"It's not my job to backseat drive provincial policy and I try to stay in my lane," Simons said. "But those plants are federally inspected, and those are federal workers who are conducting those inspections."
The union said earlier this week that CFIA had hired 70 inspectors and 20 veterinarians to fill in during the COVID-19 pandemic. The agency said the extra hires would minimize the amount of staff travel between meat processing plants.
The union said its members complained that they would face disciplinary action if they refused the new assignments. CFIA said at the time that any employee had a right to refuse work.
Simons said she's still investigating the staffing situation. She said her research so far has found that meat plants are "uniquely difficult places to manage a COVID-19 outbreak" because they are cold and humid environments where staff work closely together. Even with masks and respirators, the environment was like "a COVID-19 fiesta," she said.
Beyond staff safety, she wants to ensure meat continues to be inspected thoroughly, she said.
"You're not going to get sick with COVID-19 from eating a hamburger but there are lots of other foodborne illnesses," she said. "The CFIA inspectors are there to make sure that we don't have an outbreak of E. coli."
She said she's concerned the current situation could reduce international confidence in the beef industry in a similar fashion to what happened with the outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, in the 2000s.
"We never want that to happen again. Beef isn't just an important part of our economy. It's an important part of our cultural identity as Albertans," said Simons, who reported on the BSE crisis as a journalist. "I don't want us to put in peril the future of our industry."
The CFIA said there are no known cases where COVID-19 transmission has occurred through food or food packaging.
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