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Cargill said the High River plant, seen here on April 20, 2020, will process about three million meals with products currently in the facility in order to prevent food waste.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

One of Canada’s largest slaughterhouses is halting operations after hundreds of people connected to the facility were infected with the novel coronavirus and one died from COVID-19, marking the first major shutdown in the country’s food supply chain.

Cargill Ltd. on Monday said it is temporarily closing its meat-processing plant in High River, Alta. The facility churns out roughly 40 per cent of Western Canada’s processed beef and is a key part of the province’s agriculture industry. Alberta has linked 484 cases of COVID-19 to this plant and dozens more at a competing facility.

The president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture said the closing of the facility is “devastating” for the country’s food system, which is already under strain amid the pandemic. “[The supply chain] normally runs tickety-boo and no one has to think about it,” Mary Robinson said. “These systems are so efficient and so well-run, and as soon as we start mucking around, we’re going to have problems.”

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The High River plant is one of several slaughterhouses in North America to close or slow its assembly lines because employees, who work elbow to elbow, have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Also hit by the pandemic is JBS Canada, one of the largest beef companies in the country. So far, 67 people linked to JBS’s operations in Brooks, Alta., have contracted COVID-19, according to the province. JBS did not return a message seeking comment.

The idling of the High River facility, even temporarily, threatens to cause ripple effects along the food supply chain, both forward and backward. Consumers might see diminished stock and higher prices at the grocery store, and farmers face the prospect of financial hardship. If producers cannot find a processor to take their animals when they are ready for market, they will incur higher feed and labour costs. Some industry groups warn that a backlog of live animals on farms could also prompt producers to make hard decisions around culling some of their cattle.

Jon Nash, the head of Cargill’s North American protein division, said the company has begun the process of temporarily idling the High River facility. “We are working with farmers and ranchers, our customers and our employees to supply food in this time of crisis and keep markets moving,” he said in a statement.

Cargill, a global agriculture company with headquarters in Minnesota, said the High River plant will process about three million meals with products currently in the facility in order to prevent food waste. The firm did not provide details on how long the closure would last. The facility employs 2,000 people who typically process 4,500 head of cattle each day; many of the labourers are temporary foreign workers and immigrants tied to the city’s Filipino community.

How many coronavirus cases are there in Canada, by province, and worldwide? The latest maps and charts

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Meat-processing companies have taken measures to create space between workers, including erecting individual stalls in cafeterias, but employees for the most part work in close quarters. The job site, then, is ripe for the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, to spread. The union had been urging Cargill to suspend operations to protect its workers.

“It is about time," said Thomas Hesse, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, noting there were 38 cases of COVID-19 linked to the plant on Easter Sunday.

The head of the Syndicat Agriculture Union, which represents federal food inspectors, said he sent two letters in the past week to federal cabinet ministers asking them to implement consistent protocols across all processing plants that have sick employees. Fabian Murphy said the union wants facilities to immediately shut down for 14 days after an employee tests positive for the virus. He is also advocating for inspectors and workers to be supplied with personal protective equipment. (Inspectors must be on site during slaughter activities.)

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“The [Canadian Food Inspection Agency] is leaving it up to the plants to make a determination of whether they can operate safely or not,” Mr. Murphy said. “I don’t think that’s the right call. ... I think the government could have stepped in sooner and taken decisive action.” The CFIA did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Monday night.

Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said carpooling and the coronavirus spreading in households where infected people are unable to isolate from others have played a notable role in the outbreak in High River. Many of the people tied to processing plants with COVID-19 were exposed to the virus before the facilities implemented safety measures, she said.

“We will continue to see new cases linked to this outbreak over the coming days,” Dr. Hinshaw said.

The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, which represents 63,000 beef farms and feedlots, said Cargill was in touch on Monday to communicate that the plant would be shut down for a “short period of time.” Dennis Laycraft, the association’s executive vice-president, said that while he hopes the slaughterhouse will reopen soon, farmers need to prepare for the possibility that the plant could stay closed for weeks. And each week, he said, adds about 25,000 cattle to the backlog on Canadian farms.

“Every part of the industry is being impacted,” he said in a virtual town hall Monday. “We’re reaching out, literally as we speak, to the government to stress the urgency in getting moving on a number of measures we’ve been presenting over the last number of weeks.”

The association is urging Ottawa to implement 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-calorie 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.

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Without a set-aside program to slow down the supply chain, producers could be looking at a half-billion dollars in market losses before the end of June, Mr. Laycraft said.

The diminished processing capacity may also become apparent to consumers when they visit their local grocery store. Ms. Robinson said that while there is meat in storage that can be drawn upon in the short term, those inventories will not hold indefinitely. “The storm is not tomorrow,” she said. “The impact of these decisions being made today are going to be felt in the medium and longer term.”

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