OPINION – A COVID-19 outbreak in a Cargill plant at High River, Alberta has shut down almost half of Canada’s beef supply, leaving many farmers with no place to sell their cattle. Nearly all beef produced in Canada is processed by three high-volume, high-throughput meat packing plants: Cargill’s High River facility, the JBS plant in Brooks, Alberta and the smaller Cargill plant in Guelph, Ontario. The two Alberta plants have 85 per cent of Canada’s beef slaughter capacity and both are now grappling with COVID-19 outbreaks. While this choke point gives U.S.-based Cargill and Brazilian JBS tremendous power over both cattle prices paid to farmers and the grocery store beef prices paid by consumers, the pandemic outbreaks show it is also one of the weakest links in Canada’s food system.
This week a major COVID-19 outbreak in Cargill’s Alberta plant and a smaller outbreak at the JBS plant have required slow-downs at the JBS plant and a shut-down of the Cargill facility to protect the health of plant workers and the wider community. This also has a domino effect through the food system. Demand for cattle has collapsed, and if supplies dwindle, retail beef prices will likely rise. Without intervention, the price difference between the price of cattle and grocery store beef will end up harming both farmers and consumers while enhancing the already large profits of JBS and Cargill.
“Excessive concentration of ownership and centralization of beef processing, supported and encouraged by our federal and provincial governments, has now put the health of workers, the beef supply and the livelihoods of thousands of farmers in jeopardy,” National Farmers Union (NFU) member and Manitoba beef producer Iain Aitken said. “We extend our heartfelt condolences to the loved ones of the Cargill worker who lost her life to COVID 19.”
“Farmers need emergency support so we can take care of our livestock until the plants ramp up again. Health and safety come first, but you can’t tell the cows to stop eating and growing until the crisis is over,” Deleau, Manitoba mixed farmer and NFU Board member Ian Robson said. “We need a price floor to make sure that Cargill and JBS don’t take advantage of this crisis to reduce prices. Today’s government must not make the same kind of mistakes as during the BSE Mad Cow crisis when the giant packers pocketed support program money and put hundreds of family farms out of business.”
The NFU also urges emergency support to lay the groundwork for a more resilient and fair meat sector in Canada.
“The NFU’s vision is for a food policy based on food sovereignty,” grassfed beef producer from the Kingston, Ontario area’s Tim Dowling said. “Our food system would then support more family farmers providing more food for more Canadians by focussing on building up our capacity to serve local and regional markets across the country.”
In 2008 the NFU published a comprehensive study of Canada’s cattle industry, analysing the development meat packing companies’ concentration, the impacts on cattle prices for farmers, and offering solutions that would reorient the system towards a more resilient beef sector. Its recommendations are more valid than ever today.
“The COVID-19 crisis is a wake-up call and an opportunity to rebuild our economy in ways that work for people, and which have the resilience to manage the crisis conditions that will undoubtedly occur in the future,” Aitken said.