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President of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association Bob Lowe on his ranch near Nanton, Alberta, April 16, 2020. The cattlemen’s association, which represents 63,000 beef farms and feedlots, has been calling on the government to lay the groundwork for a set-aside program since March 24.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

The meat industry says it faces a looming crisis if COVID-19 cases continue to disrupt work at slaughterhouses, warning that a sustained backlog of live animals on farms could lead to financial trouble for farmers and shortages at the grocery store.

From beef slaughterhouses in Alberta to a poultry plant in Ontario and a pork facility in Quebec, assembly lines have closed or slowed operations because employees – who work in close quarters – have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

A slow-down at processing facilities can cause temporary ripple effects forward and backward along the food supply chain. Retailers may struggle to stock meat products; consumers might see higher prices at check-out; and with limited space and cashflow, producers could have to cull livestock if they cannot find a processor to take the animals when they are ready for market.

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The president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture said on Thursday it is time to “sound the alarm” about the realities that the farming industry faces. “[The federation] is calling on the federal government to immediately prioritize food production,” Mary Robinson said. “We must ensure Canada’s domestic food supply is secure.”

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The National Cattle Feeder’s Association said this week that producers say they can probably manage the slowed flow of their animals for the next few weeks, but a longer reduction in processing capacity could cause "quite a bit of crisis.” With multiple beef-processing facilities hit by COVID-19 in Alberta, the province’s Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen has started holding weekly phone calls with farmers, ranchers, industry groups, processors and inspectors to stay apprised of their needs and challenges.

The federal government is considering “all options” as it works with the meat industry to ensure the integrity of the Canadian food system, the department of agriculture and agri-food said in an e-mail.

Among the measures Ottawa is contemplating is what is known as a set-aside program, which would allow farmers to keep their livestock longer and feed the animals a forage-heavy maintenance diet instead of the higher-energy growth diet that typically precedes slaughter. The program would be reminiscent of the one used during the BSE crisis of the early 2000s, when slaughterhouse capacity was down. “At this time, the government of Canada is reviewing all options, including the proposals submitted by meat processors and producers’ associations such as the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association,” the department of agriculture and agri-food said.

The Canadian Cattlemen's Association wants the federal and provincial governments to provide financial assistance to help offset the additional expenditures.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

The cattlemen’s association, which represents 63,000 beef farms and feedlots, has been calling on the government to lay the groundwork for a set-aside program since March 24, when it released recommendations to support beef producers amid the pandemic. “Because it’s a critical situation, we need to match the processing capacity with the number of cattle," said Fawn Jackson, the association’s director of government and international relations. "If we don’t do this, we are going to have a number of cattle ready for market, but nowhere to process them.”

Delays in offloading livestock would increase feed and labour costs, and could cause issues with the flow of new animals onto farms. The association wants the federal and provincial governments to provide financial assistance to help offset the additional expenditures.

In an effort to keep animals moving through the processing system, the federal Liberals this week announced $20-million for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to hire and train additional staff – including recently retired inspectors and veterinarians. (Inspectors must be on site during slaughter activities.)

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Despite the problems at several facilities, the meat-processing sector has managed to “limp along,” said Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute and the Canada Research Chair in global food security at the University of Guelph. There is currently no reason to panic, he said, but the circumstances could turn. “What [the pandemic] is revealing are choke points,” Prof. Fraser said.

Employees who harvest and process animals often work in close proximity, but companies are making efforts to facilitate physical distancing and keep them from getting sick. Some of the measures include staggering break times, taking workers’ temperatures and supplying masks. One company put up hundreds of individual stalls in its cafeteria. (There is no evidence the disease is spread through food.)

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland on Thursday told reporters the virus “poses particular challenges to food processing facilities because of the dangers of contagion” associated with working elbow to elbow. She said, however, that food processors are “experts in decontamination."

Paul Meinema, the national president of United Food and Commercial Workers Canada, said his understanding is that there are about 60 presumed or confirmed cases among union members in the sector. More than half, he said, are at a Cargill Ltd. plant in High River, Alta. – one of the country’s largest slaughterhouses, supplying 40 per cent of the beef processed in Western Canada. “The safety of our members is of the utmost importance,” Mr. Meinema said, adding that the union is cognizant of the need to maintain the supply chain.

Conservative MP John Barlow, the official opposition critic for agriculture and agri-foods, said inadequate support for the beleaguered sector could force some ranchers into bankruptcy. “You talk to any stakeholder in agriculture, they are beyond frustrated,” said Mr. Barlow, the member for Foothills in Alberta. “These little baby steps are just not enough.”

After closing for two weeks, Canada’s largest pork processor and exporter, Olymel LP, resumed operations this week at its hog slaughter and cutting plant in Yamachiche, Que., but warned the facility will only gradually return to its weekly capacity of 28,000. The company, which employs more than 14,000 people in five provinces and has $4-billion in annual sales, said it is doing its best to avoid becoming a bottleneck. “Olymel is working closely with partners in the hog industry to ensure that the flow of hogs continues as normally as possible in order to avoid last-resort solutions like compassionate slaughter or euthanasia at the farm,” the company said in a statement, adding that the slow-down may affect what products are made.

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Earlier this week, Cargill decreased the capacity at its High River plant, which employs 2,000 people who typically process 4,500 head of cattle each day. “Our employees are working hard to keep food on tables in local communities,” Jon Nash, the North America lead for Cargill’s protein division, said in a statement. “While this location is working at reduced capacity and we adapt to operating during a pandemic, our work doesn’t stop.”

With a report from Tavia Grant in Toronto

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