Cows and their calves graze in a pasture on a farm near Cremona, Alta., Wednesday, June 26, 2019. A new report says the consolidation of Canada's beef processing plants has made the industry vulnerable to disease outbreaks, warning that shutdowns similar to what occurred early in the COVID-19 pandemic could "easily happen again." THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

‘Megascale’ slaughterhouses, meat-packing plants put beef industry at risk: Report

‘Megascale’ slaughterhouses, meat-packing plants put beef industry at risk: Report

CALGARY — The consolidation of beef processing plants in Alberta has kept meat prices affordable in Canada but has also made the industry vulnerable to disease outbreaks, according to a new report.

The University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy study released Wednesday warned that beef production shutdowns similar to what occurred early in the pandemic could “easily happen again.”

COVID-19 rattled the beef industry and raised awareness about consolidation after coronavirus outbreaks forced the temporary closure of multiple meat-packing plants last spring, pushing up retail prices and lowering cattle prices.

About 70 per cent of Canada’s beef production is located in just two Alberta plants.

The study by the Simpson Centre for Agricultural and Food Innovation said creating a greater number of smaller-scale facilities scattered across the country would better insulate the food industry from a future pandemic.

Yet it also said “megascale” slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants benefit from economies of scale that keep prices lower for consumers.

“There very much is a trade off with these very large processing facilities,” said Jared Carlberg, the report’s author and a professor of agribusiness and agricultural economics at the University of Manitoba.

“People like to buy things that are cheap, including food,” he said in an interview. “People have become used to spending a fairly low proportion of their income on food and the industrialization of food production and processing has allowed that to happen.”

Yet while the consolidation of meat processing has kept retail prices affordable, it also makes the industry more vulnerable to crises, Carlberg said.

“The downside is that when we do have a disruption like this and we have to shut down a very large plant, that has a much more significant impact on food security on the consumer side and on the producer side,” he said.

The study suggested that one solution could be increasing the mechanization of beef production, which would lower the risk of disease outbreaks by reducing the number of workers in facilities.

Currently, the work done at food processing facilities often entails large numbers of employees working shoulder-to-shoulder, the report said.

“Having workers in close quarters provides ideal conditions for illness to spread,” the study said. “There is a clear potential for a disease to spread quickly, leading to a disruption in food output, or even a complete shutdown of a critical facility.”

Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a case study in the risks associated with modern “megascale” processing facilities.

For example, Cargill was forced to close its beef processing plant in High River, Alta., after a COVID-19 outbreak.

Similarly, while the JBS beef processing plant in Brooks, Alta., did not close, it was forced to scale production back from two daily shifts to one, the report said.

The report said safer plant design that allows for physical distancing and increased mechanization could reduce the dependency on large numbers of workers and create a better environment for those remaining.

While the changes would come with the short-term cost of jobs lost and new capital investments, the report said it would ensure a continued supply of secure, affordable food.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 16, 2020.

The Canadian Press

sausage meat

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. Trudeau is rejecting accusations from Alberta’s justice minister that his federal government is part of a trio rooting for that province’s health system to collapse due to COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Alberta justice minister sorry for saying feds, others rooting for COVID disaster

Blame and responsibility have recently been at the centre of debate in Alberta

A rodeo south of Bowden drew a huge crowd on May 1 and 2, 2021. (Photo courtesy Northcott Rodeo Inc. Facebook page)
Alberta takes legal action against pastor, rodeo organizers for gatherings

Rallies and protests have been occurring regularly in Alberta

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Coalition says users were shut out of drug decriminalization proposal, demands redo

Health Canada is working on Vancouver request for exemption from criminal provisions on simple possession

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Here is a list of latest COVID-19 restrictions in effect in Alberta

New mandatory health restrictions are now in effect in Alberta. Additional restrictions… Continue reading

Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) celebrates with defenseman Victor Hedman (77) after the team defeated the Dallas Stars during an NHL hockey game Wednesday, May 5, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)
Analysis: McDavid NHL’s MVP front-runner in condensed season

Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid has 100-plus point season

Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Jack Campbell (36) makes a save as Maple Leafs defenceman TJ Brodie (78) and Montreal Canadiens forward Tyler Toffoli (73) look for the rebound during first period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Saturday, May 8, 2021. The Leafs and the Canadiens will meet in the playoffs for the first time in 42 years when the 2020-21 NHL post-season gets underway.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Singer Celine Dion performs during her first World Tour show called Courage Wednesday, September 18, 2019 at the Videotron Centre in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot
Songbird Uncaged: Celine Dion readies return to Las Vegas stage for 10-date run

Starting on Nov. 5, Dion will play 10 dates at the Resorts World Las Vegas theatre

An Empire Day/Victoria Day gathering of school children on Ross Street by the Cenotaph in the 1920s. On the right hand side, are members of the Red Deer Citizens Band (forerunner of the Red Deer Royals). (Photo via Red Deer Archives)
Victoria Day event helped after war

One hundred years ago, on May 24, 1921, a major community event… Continue reading

Gwynne Dyer
Gwynne Dyer: Independence is a one-way gate

Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland declared in 2014 that the referendum… Continue reading

Boston Bruins left wing Nick Ritchie (21) and Washington Capitals defenseman Brenden Dillon (4) battle for the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, May 11, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Raffl’s late goal pushes Capitals past Bruins, 2-1

Raffl’s late goal pushes Capitals past Bruins, 2-1

Chicago Blackhawks left wing Alex DeBrincat (12) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Florida Panthers in Chicago, Saturday, May 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Toews’ question chases Chicago Blackhawks into offseason

Toews’ question chases Chicago Blackhawks into offseason

Most Read