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COVID-19 outbreak at Harmony Beef

Health officials have declared a COVID-19 outbreak at the Harmony Beef meat processing plant in East Balzac.

During a daily briefing May 5, Alberta’s chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw said 37 cases have been confirmed at the slaughterhouse and meat processing facility.

“I want to emphasize that part of this case number is related to the outbreak management tool of testing asymptomatic workers,” she said. “Almost one-third of these cases were found by offering testing to those who have no symptoms, which enables quicker case management and contact tracing.”

In her briefing May 8, Hinshaw said the facility was linked to 21 active cases and 16 individuals who made a full recovery. 

“Public health officials continue to work closely with the operators to respond to each outbreak, contain the spread and ensure all public health measures are enforced and being taken seriously,” she said.

In an email to Airdrie City View, Harmony Beef spokesperson Crosbie Cotton confirmed that 25 of the cases were among employees.

The facility’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 among staff was reported March 26. At the time, the employee had not been at work for several days before testing positive, and he, along with 11 others in the same department, were asked to self-isolate for 14 days, Cotton said.

Harmony Beef is the third meat processing facility in Alberta to experience a COVID-19 outbreak. The Cargill Protein meat processing plant near High River saw more than 900 cases and two deaths among its workforce, while JBS Canada in Brooks reported 593 confirmed cases as of May 8.

The union that represents workers at Cargill and JBS Canada – the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 – have protested the facilities remaining open and is actively pursuing a stop-work order to be implemented.

Because the plants are deemed essential services, they have remained open, albeit with reduced operations and increased health and safety protocols in place that include  temperature checks on employees, staggered shifts and the use of personal protective equipment.

One organization that oversees Harmony Beef is the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). According to a statement from the agency, CFIA provides food safety inspections and export certification related to the preparation and packaging of meat at all licenced slaughterhouse facilities.

However, a decision to suspend operations at Harmony Beef due to COVID-19 would not be under CFIA’s jurisdiction, according to the statement. That decision instead falls under the purview of provincial health authorities.

According to the statement, "CFIA expects that establishment operators will abide by the advice and guidance provided by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) as well as by local public health authorities in addressing any COVID-19 outbreak. When cases of COVID-19 occur in a food processing establishment, CFIA works with local public health authorities in determining the risk of exposure by CFIA employees, and the need for self-isolation and/or a referral to health services for testing.”

Fabian Murphy, president of the Agriculture Union – which represents roughly 1,000 CFIA food inspectors across the country, including five or six who visit Harmony Beef – said the union's position is that the facility should cease operations if work conditions are not deemed safe by health authorities.

“The food production system in Canada is very important, and an integral part of our economy and livelihoods,” he said. “We’re not calling for a total shutdown. What we’re calling for is – anywhere and anytime a facility can’t control the spread of COVID-19 – to push the pause button and reassess their hazard prevention plan, and the safe-work procedures they have in place so folks can continue to work without being at risk of contracting these infections.”

After the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported at Harmony Beef, CFIA temporarily withdrew its inspection services, citing safety reasons for its workers.

“I think the right call was made back in March, when CFIA withdrew their services, because the plant didn’t have a good plan in place,” Murphy said. “Since then, the plant was allowed to reopen and try to continue operations. Unfortunately, we’ve seen they’ve had another outbreak out there, and they’re dealing with that as well, so there are some issues in that plant again.

“Whether or not they’ll continue to be allowed to operate, we’re waiting to see.”

Scott Strasser,
Follow me on Twitter @scottstrasser19

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