Canada will not experience beef shortages, but prices may creep up due to coronavirus

Though Canada has had to slow down and shutter operations at meat-packing plants, the government does not anticipate a beef shortage – but prices may rise.
calendar icon 22 April 2020
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According to Reuters, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the announcement on 21 April. He emphasised that beef producers are placing a priority on supplying the domestic market before exporting products.

Canada, one of the world’s biggest beef exporters, has idled or slowed several meat processing plants as coronavirus infections among workers spread. On Monday, Cargill Inc said it would temporarily idle production at its beef plant in High River, Alberta, because of reported COVID-19 infections.

"We are not at this point anticipating shortages of beef, but prices might go up," Trudeau said at a briefing. "We will of course be monitoring that very, very carefully."

The tally of coronavirus cases related to the Cargill plant has reached 401, Alberta Chief Medical Health Officer Deena Hinshaw said. Another 77 cases have occurred at the JBS SA beef plant at Brooks, Alberta.

North American beef demand has plummeted since the start of the pandemic. Much of this can be attributed to the shuttered restaurant and food service sector – that loss of market share outweighs gains in retail revenue from grocery stores.

Beef processors have assured Canadian officials they will prioritise domestic sales, their largest and most stable market, said Oliver Anderson, spokesman for the country's agriculture minister. The government has not imposed export restrictions, he said.

JBS has reduced production to one shift as of Tuesday at Brooks due to increased absenteeism, said spokesman Cameron Bruett.

Ottawa is "very concerned about outbreaks in the food supply chain," Health Minister Patty Hajdu told reporters.

Meat processors have taken numerous measures, such as erecting physical barriers and staggering breaks. But those steps and supplies of protective equipment are not applied equally in all plants, said Paul Meinema, national president of the United Food and Commercial Workers. The union represents employees in the country's biggest meat factories run by Cargill, JBS, Maple Leaf Foods and Olymel.

The plants should slow processing speeds and even shut them down before infections multiply, Meinema said.

Even some government inspectors who work in the plants lack face shields and non-surgical masks, said the Agriculture Union, which represents them.

"There is obviously a shortage," Agriculture Union President Fabian Murphy said. Seven inspectors in the Cargill plant have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, he said.

Canada's coronavirus death toll was 1,728 as of Tuesday, a 7 percent rise from the previous day. There have been 37,382 cases reported.

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