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Beef processing plant worker tests positive for COVID-19

Production at a beef processing plant in Balzac was temporarily disrupted March 27, the day after an employee tested positive for COVID-19.

“Alberta Health Services (AHS) informed us [March 26] that an employee, who had not been at work for several days, had tested positive,” read a statement from Harmony Beef spokesperson Crosbie Cotton. “As per our strict policy, all 11 workers in his department were sent home for 14 days of self-quarantine, even though none showed any [symptoms].”

The reduced production came after the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) did not allow inspectors to access the facility to perform slaughter inspection services, while health assessments were conducted.

“There was no slaughter inspection provided on March 27 and 30 while the company worked with Alberta Health Services (AHS) and the CFIA to safely resume slaughter as soon as possible, after a company employee tested positive for COVID-19,” read a statement from CFIA’s media relations department. “There was no impact on processing or export certification at the plant.”

According to Cotton, most of the facility’s employees – outside of the 12 workers who are in quarantine – were still at work March 27, processing orders that clients were waiting for. He added the plant was back to full operation by March 30.

“We worked co-operatively and positively over the weekend with the CFIA and AHS to get the plant fully operational, and both organizations deserve credit for understanding there was no health risk,” he said. “AHS says the steps we have long implemented to protect against the spread of the virus are both exceptional and exemplary.”

Keeping processing plants open and at full capacity has been a priority for the ranching sector, according to Alberta Beef Producers chair Kelly Fraser-Smith, given a recent increase in demand for freezer-friendly grocery products, including beef.

A family-owned operation located a few kilometres southeast of CrossIron Mills and the Century Downs Racetrack and Casino, Harmony Beef has the capacity to process 750 head of beef per day.

Cotton said the operation implemented new safety protocols, even before the employee tested positive for COVID-19, to help limit the possible transmission. He said every employee is screened and their temperature is tested before beginning a shift, and that work shifts are “staggered” so employees can practice physical distancing from each other.

“We have also brought in extra people to sanitize the plant both during the day and after every shift,” he said. “Locker rooms and cafeterias are sanitized after every break.”

As Harmony Beef is involved with the agriculture sector, the plant is considered an essential service, allowing it to resume normal operations. The province designated agriculture as an essential service March 27.

Companies that fall under the designation do not have to restrict gatherings to fewer than 15 people, though they are still directed to implement protocols to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as physical-distancing measures and screening employees.

COVID-19 UPDATE: Follow our COVID-19 special section for the latest local and national news on the coronavirus pandemic, as well as resources, FAQs and more.

Scott Strasser,
Follow me on Twitter @scottstrasser19

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