Hundreds of COVID-19 cases linked to Cargill’s Alberta slaughterhouse highlights the greed and exploitation in the Canadian beef sector

On April 13, 2020, there were 38 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in a High River, Alberta slaughterhouse that is operated by Cargill, a company based in Minnesota, US. Just four days later, Alberta Health Services announced that there were now 358 COVID-19 cases linked to this slaughterhouse. This is the latest in a series of outbreaks happening across the world in slaughterhouses and meat packing plants. One common characteristic of these facilities is that the workforce is predominantly comprised of low-wage, racialized workers, many of which are Temporary Foreign Workers, i.e. vulnerable individuals who are already in precarious economic and social situations. The Cargill plant in Alberta is no exception. Its website has changed within the past few days but a cached version states that:

Cargill in High River has been recognized as one of the pioneers for recruiting temporary foreign workers. Through working closely with the Alberta Government, the High River plant has successfully recruited 450 laborers from both the Philippines & Mexico and still continues to do so.

Individuals hired by Cargill through Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker program often share accommodations and are transported to and from work together, so the precautions taken to protect the safety of workers must extend beyond the workplace. Cargill’s slaughterhouse in High River employs approximately 2000 workers and kills 5000 cows per day which amounts to 1/3 of the beef processing capacity of the entire country.

Economically, there is a lot at stake if this slaughterhouse were to shut down, as the Canadian beef industry would take a massive hit. This is evidenced by the pressure from numerous politicians in Canada that have been vocal in ensuring slaughterhouses maintain full production capacity – even in a pandemic, even at the expense of workers’ health and safety.

Below is a timeline of events that shows the various actors and forces at play that contributed to this outbreak at the Cargill slaughterhouse. Ultimately, it is both the animals and the workers killing the animals that are the victims of systematic exploitation in the meat industry.

  • March 11

    COVID-19 pandemic declared by the WHO, calls for social distancing shortly follow in Canada by Public Health officials.

  • March 18

    The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association said that maintaining beef production is a top priority in Canada. Essentially, business as usual in slaughterhouses. They state that, “Ensuring Canadians have continued access to high-quality and nutritious beef products is a top priority in these discussions. There are no fundamental changes to the export and import of food and livestock related to the COVID-19 outbreak.” JBS Canada, the company operating the other major slaughterhouse in Alberta, stated that their slaughterhouse is running at “full capacity.” CTV News

  • March 20

    A now deleted post on Reddit from an individual stating they are an employee at the Cargill plant, expressed safety concerns and a lack of response from the company and union. The post writes:

    I work at Cargill Foods in High River, 3000 people work here and it’s not closed. We eat in a single lunchroom, they are building cubicles on our pre-existing lunch tables thinking it’s going to be a preventative measure. Majority immigrants work here, even some from Wuhan but haven’t been shut down. My friend and both floor leads in my area have gone home sick, I keep going to work because I have to pay my rent and even working full time I can barely afford it. I have a runny nose, a sore throat, and have started to cough, I’ve noticed many of my co-workers have runny noses, nobody here has been taking it serious, management just says wash your hands, they don’t believe the severity the situation, many of us are scared, our union doesn’t seem to be taking it seriously either, they are happy to collect money from our paycheck but do nothing for us. I keep thinking if just a single person is positive then very likely nearly all of us will also have it, and if 3000 of us get it, i’m guessing there will be deaths, but Cargill seems to be only concerned making it’s money and they don’t care about employees, even tho they released a public statement saying they “do care about our wellbeing, and are taking preventative measures with “cleaning ect.” aka building cubicles in our lunchroom when me and everyone else there knows that is not going to do anything.

    Seems like a risk to my health that I’m not getting compensated for, they want me to do to work while everyone else sits at home, i want a better pay.

    We’re unable to confirm the veracity of this information.

  • March 26

    Alberta’s Minister of Agriculture, Devin Dreeshen, reiterated the need to keep slaughterhouses and packing plants running. From the Calgary Herald: “The Alberta government is calling on Ottawa to designate the entire agriculture industry an “essential service” in an effort to keep the province’s food supply chain — including two major meat-packing plants — up and running during the COVID-19 crisis.”

  • March 27

    After a confirmed case of COVID-19 at another slaughterhouse in Alberta, Harmony Beef, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) withdrew their inspection services until it was satisfied the plant had an adequate safety plan in place. The federal government also asked retired CFIA inspectors to come out of retirement as they were struggling to keep up with volume.

  • March 28

    By this date, many industries in Canada had slowed down or shut their doors completely in efforts to ensure workers and individuals were physical distancing. In the case of slaughterhouses and packing plants, they opted to increase production, putting the workers and the food system at risk.

    Headline from the Western Producer on March 28 reads “Cattle markets in turmoil under COVID-19 fears”. Fluctuations in the cattle market provided an opportunity for the industry to exploit the pandemic and increase production. Brian Perillat of Canfax notes that, “If anything packers have boosted production. Beef prices have gone up and cattle prices are pretty cheap so packers are running Saturdays.”

    These are the shoulder to shoulder working conditions from the Cargill High River slaughterhouse (undated photo)

  • April 13

    The union representing the workers at Cargill’s High River slaughterhouse stated there are 38 confirmed cases of COVID-19. At this time 10 confirmed cases were also reported at the other major beef slaughterhouse: JBS in Brooks, AB (~2500 employees, slaughter capacity ~4000 cows/day).

    The union called for an immediate 2 week shutdown of the High River slaughterhouse to conduct a comprehensive assessment of safety and full compensation for the workers.

    Despite this call, Cargill did not shut down the plant. Instead it cut one of its shifts and reduced capacity by half. On April 15, the president of Cargill Protein, Jon Nash, said of their production: “Typically right around that 5,000 head a day, we are 50 per cent of that or so today.”

  • April 17

    The Public Health Officer of Alberta Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced that 358 COVID-19 cases were now linked to the High River plant, an increase of 320 confirmed cases in just 4 days.

This timeline reveals the exploitative nature of the beef industry and its emphasis on maintaining capacity at the expense of workers’ safety. This industry is driven by profit and market dominance, seeking to extract as much value from its vulnerable and marginalized workforce. From the outset of the pandemic, industry groups, slaughterhouses, and politicians were pushing for full capacity, knowing full well that the conditions inside slaughterhouses are shoulder to shoulder for thousands of employees, and that their close proximity outside of the workplace also increases the risk of transmission.

An important note is that Canada is one of the largest exporters of beef in the world, exporting almost half of its product out of country, 74% of exports going to the US market. The industry’s calls for the government to deem slaughterhouses an “essential service” must be viewed in the context of the beef trade. Is the product essential for the Canadian food supply, or for maintaining the Canadian beef industry’s position in the global beef market? Even if production was cut by half at the outset of the pandemic, this may have still have resulted in roughly the same amount of beef destined for the Canadian market. This would have also ensured that workers in these plants could rotate shifts and ensure that adequate physical distancing precautions were taken, and that their shared housing and transportation needs were addressed by the company, public health officials, and government officials responsible for the administration of the Temporary Foreign Worker’s program.

But the industry chose to go the 100% capacity route.

Sentient Media published an article on April 17 with the headline: JBS Kept Colorado Beef Plant Open for Weeks During Pandemic. Now 3 Workers Are Dead. The parallels between this JBS plant and Cargill are numerous, but at their core is a workforce that is overwhelmingly comprised of people of colour that fear loss of employment if they speak out, and companies that exploit the economic vulnerabilities of marginalized individuals, both domestic and foreign. In the piece cited above by Sentient Media, Spencer Roberts writes:

Combining political and economic influence, a plausible claim to essential status, a marginalized workforce, and an elbow-to-elbow workflow behind concrete walls, the meat-processing sector created a perfect storm for transmission of the coronavirus. Outbreaks have also occurred at JBS plants in Iowa, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania, where another plant was temporarily shut down.

The drive from the beef industry and politicians pushing for maximum beef production made an outbreak at this facility inevitable, yet it was completely preventable. With hundreds of individuals tested positive for COVID-19 linked to this slaughterhouse, and with the other JBS plant still in operation with confirmed cases, there is a real likelihood that workers will die from COVID-19, like those that are dying at the JBS plant in Colorado.

John Barlow, Member of Parliament for the Foothills Riding

What is the response by John Barlow, the MP for the riding that the High River Plant is located in? In a Facebook post published on April 17, the day that 358 cases were confirmed at this plant, he wrote:

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

This is a boot to the face for his constituents that work in this slaughterhouse and their families. (It should be noted that this is also the same MP that introduced Canada’s first Ag-Gag bill). For an MP to urge that this slaughterhouse remain open during a serious COVID-19 outbreak clearly demonstrates his underlying ideology that values business, trade, and corporate control over workers’ health and safety. It also demonstrates that the lives of slaughterhouse workers, much like the situation of Canadian long-term care home workers in this pandemic, are expendable and disposable in our profit-driven economy.

The ultimate callousness demonstrated by John Barlow, however, was the picture below that was included in his Facebook post. When workers and their family members in his riding start dying, he’ll be reminded that he values steak over the lives of people he was elected to serve.