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Cargill's beef plant in High River, Alta., on April 23, 2020. The facility usually churns out about 36 per cent of beef processed in Canada.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Cargill Ltd.'s Alberta slaughterhouse, which accounts for 36 per cent of Canada’s beef production, will resume operations next week after shutting down because of a surge of COVID-19 cases among its workers.

The High River facility will restart on May 4, according to a company statement. About 2,000 people work at the plant, which shut down on April 20 as the novel coronavirus swept through its work force.

So far, 821 Cargill employees have tested positive for the virus, and one has died. Another 276 employees and contractors at rival JBS Canada’s operation in Brooks, Alta., have fallen ill and one died after being infected with the coronavirus.

Cargill said it has sanitized the plant and introduced new physical distancing measures for the workers, limiting carpooling and providing transportation for others.

The announcement was made one day after U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order that compels his country’s meat plants to remain in operation.

Marie-Claude Bibeau, Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister, told the Commons Industry Committee on Wednesday that Ottawa is working on deals with different provinces and territories to help resolve future shortages of meat. Current rules prevent meat inspected by provincial government inspectors from being sold in other provinces, while only meat inspected by federal inspectors can be sold nationwide.​

Ms. Bibeau said that “if we face a food shortage in one province or territory,” the Canada Food Inspection Agency is willing to allow movement of provincially inspected meat even if it has been inspected by a provincial authority rather than federal inspectors.

Canada’s meat production was halved last week after the Cargill plant shut down and JBS axed one of its two shifts because it was short on employees. Pressure on the supply chain led McDonald’s Canada on Tuesday to roll out plans to import beef.

The High River facility usually churns out about 36 per cent of beef processed in Canada, while JBS’s plant in Brooks adds another 32 per cent. COVID-19 infections have disrupted operations in at least eight meat-processing plants from Quebec to British Columbia, including facilities in Yamachiche, Que., Brampton, Ont., Hamilton, Waterloo, Ont., and Vancouver.

Cargill said it is resuming work with “support” from Alberta Health Services and the watchdog Occupational Health and Safety. Alberta’s meat-processing industry is classified as an essential service, making the employer responsible for the safety of its workers.

Jon Nash, the head of Cargill’s North American protein division, in a statement said the company implemented some safety suggestions from the workers’ union, and welcomed representatives to examine the site.

“We will continue to put people first and do the right thing as we navigate this difficult time together,” he said.

The Alberta government and the province’s chief medical officer, Deena Hinshaw, have said the plants in High River and Brooks are not exclusively responsible for the explosive spread of the virus. They pointed to carpooling, multi-generational households, homes with multiple roommates and workers clocking in even when showing symptoms. These workforces are dominated by temporary foreign workers and immigrants.

Cargill said it will limit access to the plant to no more than two people per vehicle, with one occupant in the front and one in the back, to bolster physical distancing. The company, in partnership with AHS, will also provide buses retrofitted with protective barriers between the seats to alleviate the need for carpooling. Hundreds of Cargill employees live in Calgary, about 60 kilometres north of the plant.

Employees returning to work “should be healthy and not had contact with anyone with the COVID-19 virus for 14 days,” the company said. Cargill said it sanitized the plant, installed more protective barriers in washrooms, reassigned lockers and continued to educate workers about the importance of social distancing. The company had implemented some mitigation measures, including protective barriers in the cafeteria and thermal checks at entrances, before halting operations, but employees told The Globe and Mail the company acted too late.

Cargill also noted in its news release that it had installed protective barriers between workers on the production floor since the beginning of March.

Dr. Hinshaw said members of her team who visited the plant believe Cargill’s latest efforts "are sufficient to prevent the spread of infection.”

McDonald’s Canada did not respond to an e-mail asking whether it will reverse its import plan now that the High River facility will soon reopen.

Meat processors say Canadians do not need to worry about supply.

“On balance, the system is holding and weathering this,” Chris White, president of the Canadian Meat Council, which represents 55 federally inspected meat packers and processors, said. "There is ample supply product. The product is still being processed. It’s not being as quickly as it was pre-COVID, but it’s still being processed.”

Asked if he would require meat processors to stay open, as Mr. Trump has done, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this country would “do whatever needs to be done” to protect workers in the food industry while keeping supply flowing.

“We need to make sure those supply chains can keep functioning but we also need to make sure the people who work in those supply chains – and will continue to need to work in difficult circumstances over the coming weeks and months as we continue to battle COVID-19 – are kept safe,” the Prime Minister said.

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