For the third time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, an outbreak of the virus has been identified at the Harmony Beef meat processing plant.
As of Nov. 4, the facility is listed on the Alberta government’s list of COVID-19 outbreaks. According to company spokesman Crosbie Cotton, Harmony Beef has 19 new active cases of the virus, with many stemming from a private event during the Thanksgiving weekend.
“It’s disappointing because every case occurs within a few days of a holiday,” he said. “We have been a true industry leader in putting in measures within our plant to protect employees and prevent the spread. Long weekends seem to be our bane.”
According to Cotton, Harmony Beef employs roughly 500 workers.
“It does not appear that this [transmission] occurred at our plant,” he said. “There was a private gathering that created a lot of cases in Calgary, and also an outbreak at Harmony Beef. We’re not sure if they’re the same thing.”
In April, Cotton told the Rocky View Weekly a number of measures including staggered work shifts, employee screening and increased sanitization efforts were implemented to address the spread of the virus. Following the third outbreak, Cotton reiterated health measures are in place.
“We’ve led the industry in putting in dividers, separating people and slowing down the line speed,” he said.
Still, Harmony Beef has made headlines throughout the pandemic as a source of COVID-19 outbreaks. The plant’s first confirmed cases among employees occurred in late March.
In early May, the facility suffered its first official outbreak. During her May 5 briefing, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said 37 cases were confirmed at the meat processing facility.
A second outbreak at the plant occurred in August when more than 60 cases of the virus were reported.
Throughout the early months of the pandemic, meat-processing plants were hot spots for COVID-19 outbreaks. Two of Alberta’s largest outbreaks were at the Cargill Protein meat processing plant in High River – where more than 900 cases were confirmed among workers – and JBS Canada’s meat processing plant in Brooks, where more than 600 workers contracted the virus.
Michael Hughes, a senior communications representative for United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 401 – the union that represents Cargill and JBS workers – said working conditions at plants can result in the virus spreading among employees.
“Some of the things we’ve observed, beef plants are built around social proximity, which is the complete opposite of physical distancing,” he said. “They’re designed around efficiencies, and they’re essentially disassembly lines. People have to work close together in order to efficiently meet the demands of the industry.”
While UFCW Local 401 does not represent Harmony Beef employees, Hughes claimed the union has been contacted by some of the plant’s workers.
“When it comes to Harmony Beef, we’re aware and we hear from the odd employee there, even though we don’t formally have the right to represent workers at Harmony Beef under the Labour Relations Code,” he said. “But the industry is a small one, and a lot of the employees who work at Harmony Beef have worked at Cargill and JBS. They know what it’s like when you have a voice in your workplace.”
Crosbie said Harmony Beef would not comment on the conditions at other meat processing plants.