Canadian Manufacturing

Omicron variant could stress Canadian food production and manufacturing, according to farm groups

Due to difficulties attracting local workers, the agriculture industry has long relied on temporary foreign workers and immigrants to fill positions at feedlots, greenhouses, and processing plants.

January 7, 2022   The Canadian Press

Canada’s chronically understaffed agriculture industry is warning that increased absenteeism related to the highly contagious Omicron variant could severely stress this country’s food production systems.

Already, there are signs of strain. A slaughterhouse in Quebec opted to euthanize thousands of chickens that couldn’t be processed this week, blaming rising COVID-19 infections among employees as well as federal delays processing temporary foreign worker applications for its protracted staff shortage.

Mushroom farms across the country are dealing with “unprecedented” levels of absenteeism that threaten some operators’ very survival, according to Janet Krayden, workforce specialist with The Canadian Mushroom Growers’ Association.

And Western Canada’s beef industry is closely monitoring the status of Alberta’s large meat processing plants, which so far remain operational in this latest wave of the virus, but which were the site of some of the country’s largest outbreaks of illness in 2020.

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Mary Robinson, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said there are very few aspects of food production that aren’t vulnerable to COVID-related labour shortages and interruptions.

“Dairy farms are a concern. The cows have to be fed, have to be milked, have to be cared for,” she said. “The pork industry is a concern — you can’t stop a sow from farrowing. You’re going to have thousands and thousands of animals being born, you can’t slow that down.”

The rural, isolated nature of farm jobs and the physicality of the work are two of the reasons behind a chronic, long-standing labour shortage in Canadian agriculture. In 2014, primary agricultural producers lost out on $1.4-billion in potential sales due to the inability to find workers, Robinson said.

That number rose to $2.9 billion in 2020, in large part due to the impact of COVID-19 on the industry’s workforce challenges, she added.

“That’s almost four per cent of the sector’s total sales that we’ve lost,” Robinson said. “Those are lost opportunities for the entire country.”

Due to difficulties attracting local workers, the agriculture industry has long relied on temporary foreign workers and immigrants to fill positions at feedlots, greenhouses, and processing plants.

But Krayden said federal processing of work permits has slowed to a crawl during COVID-19, with some farms waiting up to seven months to get approvals. She said job vacancies at some mushroom farms now approach 40 per cent.

“It makes it very difficult for any business, and in particular, our food system to survive,” Krayden said. “Unless governments put some long-term strategies in place so we can continue to function and grow food, we will begin to see less and less Canadian-grown food on the shelves.”

In 2020, outbreaks of COVID-19 at meat-packing plants in Alberta sickened hundreds of workers and resulted in four deaths. The outbreaks also caused temporary plant shutdowns that left Western Canada’s beef slaughter capacity at about 25 per cent of normal.

Both Cargill Inc. and JBS Canada said on Jan. 6 that their production capacity has been unaffected during the Omicron wave. JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett said the company’s Brooks, Alta. plant has not seen a material increase in cases, while Cargill spokesman Daniel Sullivan said case numbers at the company’s facility at High River, Alta. “tend to ebb and flow with community numbers.”