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Cargill and Maple Leaf Foods announced pay premiums for its employees at meat processing facilities.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

The federal government says it will recruit retired meat inspectors in order to address labour shortages at Canada’s processing plants, as consumers pack their grocery carts and freezers for long stretches at home because of COVID-19.

As most malls, stores and restaurants close across the country, buying groceries is one of the few shopping options left for Canadians as the government urges everyone to stay home as much as possible. The situation is creating a strain on Canada’s food supply chain, prompting companies to offer special incentives for employees.

On Monday, Cargill and Maple Leaf Foods announced pay premiums for its employees at meat processing facilities. The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents processing plant workers, said the companies agreed to the extra pay, in addition to new safety measures for workers such as increased social distancing and a ban on visitors.

The premium is worth an extra two dollars an hour, with a $500 bonus to those who complete weekly shifts for eight weeks in a row. Similar pay premiums have recently been announced for workers at Canada’s major grocery chains, including Loblaw Cos. Ltd., Metro Richelieu Inc. and Sobeys Inc.

Christopher White, president of the Canadian Meat Council, told The Globe and Mail on Monday that a combination of inspector shortages and increased demand is creating challenges.

In a recent letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the council said Canada’s entire food supply chain should be designated as “critical infrastructure” under the government’s emergency management framework. The letter said this would ensure plants can continue to operate at full capacity and that meat products can be transported easily across the border.

“All of the focus by the government to ensure the supply chain stays open, particularly crossing borders; that’s great and we are fully supportive of that. Our more immediate concern though is ensuring that the plants stay open to continue to process meat to get the product onto the shelves. And there are some concerns," said Mr. White.

"What industry is saying that unless these plants are deemed an essential service, it is going to be very, very difficult to provide that type of volume of products that consumers will be expecting.”

Mr. White said a critical infrastructure designation would make it easier for plants to stay open longer –including special Saturday shifts – to meet demand.

Federal Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said the government is working to address the issue by increasing staff at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and easing inspection burdens, where possible.

“There’s a challenge around human resources at CFIA mainly for our inspectors,” Ms. Bibeau told reporters at a news conference in Ottawa. Ms. Bibeau said federal officials are working with the provinces to find ways of reducing delays in the inspection process.

“We are really in the mode right now [of] finding different ways to make it easier and faster,” she said. “We are also calling back inspectors who have retired recently.”

Fabian Murphy, national president of the agriculture union representing CFIA inspectors, said he is not aware of any major concerns at the moment in terms of inspector shortages. He said the main focus at the moment is establishing clear rules regarding the safety and screening of workers at processing facilities.

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