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A butcher works at a meat market in Vancouver, on March 26, 2020.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Ottawa is watching Canada’s meat supply chain “with interest and concern” as COVID-19 infections at processing plants threaten production.

He said, however, that Canada will not sacrifice worker safety as it tries to keep the supply chain functioning.

The Prime Minister made his comments one day after McDonald’s Canada says it will start importing beef as Canada’s beef supply chain struggles to meet current demand. At least eight meat-processing plants from Quebec to British Columbia have been grappling with COVID-19 infections that have disrupted production.

Asked if he would require meat processors to stay open as U.S. President Donald Trump has done, the Canadian leader said this country would “do whatever needs to be done” to ensure that people who work in the food industry are protected but also that supply chains continue functioning.

“We understand how important it is to maintain the supply of food to Canadians right across the country and we are watching with interest and concern some of the issues facing meat producers and the supply chain across the agricultural industry,” the Prime Minister said.

“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,” he said.

"The priority for us is both things: keeping people safe and ensuring a good supply of food to Canadians. We will make sure we are doing them both together.”

Last week, Mr. Trudeau told reporters he wasn’t worried about beef shortages. Asked about this again on Wednesday, about McDonald’s Canada’s announcement and whether Canada is bracing for other hits to the food supply, Mr. Trudeau tried to reassure Canadians that the federal Department of Agriculture and Agri-food was working on the problem together with provincial governments.

“This pandemic is unprecedented and the impacts are far reaching on our daily lives and many different industries,” he said.

“We need to continue to stay vigilant because of the large disruptions across many different sectors in our country, including obviously agriculture.”

The McDonald’s Canada restaurant chain, which prides itself on using only Canadian beef, said in a statement this week that it’s looking to imported beef because of the limited processing capacity at Canadian suppliers, such as a Cargill Inc. plant near High River, Alta.

Cargill has shuttered operations temporarily after a worker died from COVID-19 and hundreds of other employees tested positive for the coronavirus that causes the disease.

Other meat-packing plants that are coping with cases of COVID-19 include operations in Yamachiche, Que., Brampton, Ont., Hamilton, Waterloo, Ont., Brooks, Alta., Calgary and Vancouver.

Current rules prevent meat inspected by provincial government inspectors from being sold in other provinces, while meat inspected by federal inspectors can be sold nationwide.

Asked if Mr. Trudeau was open to relaxing these rules to help deal with limited supply, the Prime Minister said Ottawa is receptive to proposals that might help. But he said in the case of meat production, the challenge is keeping workers safe, not resolving a problem with product safety.

“We’re open to all sorts of flexibility, ensuring we can keep Canadians safe right across the country.”

Meat processors, however, say there’s no reason for Canadians to worry about the meat supply or begin stockpiling product at home.

“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.

Mr. White said in his opinion McDonald’s Canada is being “overly cautious” because the difficulties facing some meat processing plants in this country are not having a significant impact on the meat supply. “Our sense isn’t that there is a shortage,” he 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.”

He described efforts by government and industry as a “daily calibration” to make sure there are enough measures in place to protect workers, including borrowing ideas that are proving successful elsewhere.

“Every plant and industry is concerned about the health of their employees,” Mr. White said.

With a report from The Canadian Press.

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