As slaughterhouse workers got sick, 330,000 tonnes of meat were being exported out of Canada

During the initial months of the coronavirus pandemic, we tracked COVID-19 outbreaks in Canadian slaughterhouses. Along with long-term care homes, slaughterhouses quickly became COVID-19 hotspots, with the Cargill slaughterhouse in High River, Alberta being the centre of Canada’s largest COVID-19 outbreak, with over 950 workers contracting the virus. Tragically, 3 people died because of that outbreak, two workers and the father of another worker at Cargill. As of May 26, we found that at least 2305 workers in Canadian slaughterhouses had tested positive for COVID-19, and 5 workers had died.

Why Slaughterhouses?

A major contributing factor that explains why slaughterhouses were so badly affected by COVID-19 is that the companies operating them employ and exploit a predominantly racialized, low-wage workforce (including many Temporary Foreign Workers). These companies place a higher value on maintaining high-volume, high-speed production lines than they do about their workers’ safety. We looked at this issue in our post about the Cargill outbreak; a June 22 article from the Guardian examines this as well: Poor conditions in meat plants fuel Covid-19 outbreaks, say unions. Journalists from the CBC and the Globe and Mail also conducted thorough investigations which included interviews from Canadian slaughterhouse workers themselves.

The workers at the plant are primarily immigrants to Canada or temporary foreign workers and many speak limited to no English. Some say their job security is key to them remaining in the country. Employees have said they’ve sustained injuries at the plant, from blackened fingers to knee damage that has made it difficult to walk.

Excerpt from CBC article, May 6, 2020
Cargill slaughterhouse in High River, AB

When the coronavirus pandemic was declared in March, all Canadians were given directions by public health officials to physically distance in order to flatten the curve. These warnings went unheeded in the meat industry. In fact, the opposite happened. Some companies ramped up production. The slaughter of animals increased. On March 28, Brian Perillat of Canfax stated that, “If anything packers have boosted production. Beef prices have gone up and cattle prices are pretty cheap so packers are running Saturdays.” Our previous post examines the timeline and decisions made by the beef industry at the onset of the pandemic.

Instead of slowing down production and ensuring safety precautions were in place, slaughterhouses maintained their high volumes and let the coronavirus spread rapidly through their workforce.

These companies wanted to preserve their status quo and make money. And they did. They sacrificed lives doing it.

“For our food supply to function, it is urgent these plants remain active.”

This was the message from MP John Barlow, the Member of Parliament for the Foothills riding which includes within its borders the Cargill High River slaughterhouse. Barlow deemed it more important that slaughterhouses remain open than addressing the safety of his constituents. During the months when COVID-19 outbreaks were spreading fastest in slaughterhouses, we heard this same narrative pushed over and over again: We need to protect our food supply, our food security, keep Canadians fed, can’t let people go hungry, etc. Politicians of all stripes pushed this message.

It is not a perfect situation by any stretch. But we’re doing what we can to try and make sure that people are rewarded for their hard work, and that others aren’t going hungry.

Justin Trudeau announcing hundreds of millions of dollars for the meat sector, including $77 million to slaughterhouses. May 5, 2020. CTV News

The Canadian food security lie

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada releases meat export data every month (red meat; poultry). The numbers for March and April show that any worries about food security or food shortages were unfounded. Canada exported 332,732 tonnes of meat in March and April. For comparison, 326,129 tonnes of meat were exported in the preceding 2 month period. Total meat exports actually increased during the pandemic. In fact, the 133,051 tonnes of pork that was exported in March was the highest on record, accounting for nearly half a billion dollars worth of exports for pork in that month alone. The first table shows the total meat exports in the first 4 months of 2020, with the pandemic months highlighted in red. The second table shows the record number of pork exports in March in comparison to previous months and years.

Rather than slow down production, or have meat destined for export be instead directed to the domestic market to address potential food security concerns, it was business as usual in the meat industry. It was only until major outbreaks of COVID-19 spread through slaughterhouses and workers started dying that these companies were forced to slow down. Even then, exports continued.

Public money for private pockets

When the COVID-19 outbreaks occurred in slaughterhouses across the country, bottlenecks in the food system started to appear. Producers were unable to send their animals to be killed because thousands of slaughterhouse workers were getting sick with COVID-19. All industry groups started to aggressively target Ottawa to provide their sector with financial aid because they suddenly found themselves in a self-inflicted crisis. Much of this was done under the pretext of “food security.’ For example, this April 23 letter was sent to all provincial, territorial, and federal ministers on behalf of the entire Canadian pork industry. It was written by Rick Bergman, Chair of the Canadian Pork Council, and signed by the chairs of all provincial industry groups: BC Pork, Alberta Pork, Saskatchewan Pork Development Board, Manitoba Pork, Ontario Pork, Les Éleveurs de porcs du Québec, Porc NB Pork, Nova Scotia Pork, and the PEI Hog Marketing Board. The opening paragraph reads:

On behalf of pork producers, the tens of thousands of hard-working Canadians employed on Canadian hog farms and the tens of millions of Canadians that rely on a safe and stable food supply, we are urging you to take immediate action to prevent a major crisis that will put Canada’s farms, and Canada’s food security, at risk. (Emphasis added)

The letter states that the sector will lose $675 million and asked Ottawa for direct cash payments (i.e. not loans) at $20 per pig, all under the guise of “Canada’s food security is at risk”. Looking at the March and April export data for each industry, it’s clear that food security was never at risk. They pushed this narrative to get Ottawa to hand over hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to their sector. The same story played out in other livestock sectors.

Prime Minister Trudeau announced on May 5 that $252 million was being provided to the meat and dairy industries, “to support the farmers and businesses who provide Canadians with the food they need.” Rick Bergman responded with these words: “We look forward to more solutions but right now the solution given to us would resemble a cup of water to look after a house that’s burning down.” After the pork sector reported record exports of pork in the first month of the pandemic, Bergman took the millions of dollars in federal aid as an insult, likening it to a cup of water for his sector’s “burning house.”

Deaths, lies, and meat

The tragic deaths of slaughterhouse workers and their family members in Canada was preventable. Slaughterhouses could have slowed down production by cutting exports, ensuring workers had Personal Protective Equipment, and by taking proper precautions so workers could physically distance and work safely. They could even have stopped production completely, as Cargill did only after workers began dying (it comes as no surprise that Canadians never actually went hungry when this slaughterhouse closed).

Workers’ safety and lives were sacrificed for the meat industry so that high volumes of meat would continue to be processed and the export of meat could continue uninterrupted. They were sacrificed by the corporations running these facilities, and they were sacrificed by the politicians that lied about Canadian food security, knowing full well that hundreds of thousands of tonnes of meat were being exported out of country, and that no one in Canada would actually go hungry if these slaughterhouses shut down. Even if they did shut down forever, no one would go hungry. Humans don’t need meat to survive. As Jonathan Safran Foer writes in the Washington Post: Meat is not essential, why are we killing for it?

In the end, workers lost their lives. Corporations made money. The government funneled millions of taxpayer dollars to the meat industries under a “food security” lie. The export of meat during the initial months of the pandemic reinforces what we already know: our system is rigged. We’ll close with Trudeau’s statement during the announcement of financial aid to the meat sector.

“Canadians count on farmers and producers to provide them with the food they need to feed themselves and their families. Today, we are giving them the support they need to keep their workers safe and food systems running during this challenging time, for the benefit of all Canadians.”

Justin Trudeau – May 5, 2020