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Federal government earmarking $77M to keep food-processing industry safe

A union representative greets workers returning to the Cargill beef processing plant in High River, Alta., that was closed for two weeks because of COVID-19 Monday, May 4, 2020. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Tuesday more than $77 million to help keep workers in the food processing industry safe.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Tuesday more than $77 million to help keep workers in the food-processing industry safe.

The news comes as a Cargill meat-packing plant in High River, Alta., south of Calgary, reopened Monday after a two-week shutdown due to a COVID-19 outbreak. More than 900 of its 2,000 workers have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

There are also outbreaks at the JBS meat-processing plant in Brooks, Alta., which has reduced production to one shift per day largely due to absenteeism, and at Harmony Beef just north of Calgary.

Companies have implemented new safety measures, including the use of masks and installation of barriers to ensure social distancing.

"This is money that they can use to purchase personal protective equipment for workers, adapt health to protocols and support other social-distancing measures," Trudeau said at a news conference.

"It will also help expand or adapt our processing capacity to increase the amount of Canadian products we make domestically."

The union representing the meat-packing workers has argued that it is still not safe inside the facilities and more needs to be done. It has said many staff are afraid to go to work. Trudeau defended making the cash available to large companies.

"The responsibility is shared from the owners and the operators of the plants to the provincial government," he said. "But the federal government is happy to be part of creating solutions in this situation where we're in an unprecedented crisis."

The Agriculture Union, which represents federal food inspectors, said Trudeau's announcement misses the mark and will do little to address cramped quarters in hallways, lunchrooms and washrooms at meat plants.

"If we had been consulted, we would have advised the federal government to get off the sidelines and exercise their responsibility and authority over federally regulated food processors when there are outbreaks, and to shut them down when they are not safe," said union president Fabian Murphy.

"Generally speaking, a handout to processors is not going is not going to solve the issue of protecting workers safety if they cannot access adequate personal protective gear."

An official with Cargill said it is assessing Ottawa's announcement. It's High River plant processes about 4,500 head of cattle a day — more than one-third of Canada's beef-packing capacity.

"We're currently reviewing the prime minister's announcement to determine any impacts to our operations," said Daniel Sullivan in an email.

"We are grateful, however, to the government and community organizations for their commitment to ranchers and processors and to the health and safety of industry workers during this difficult time. That is our top priority as well."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 5, 2020

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

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