Plant security check workers returning to the Cargill beef processing plant in High River, Alta., that was closed for two weeks because of COVID-19 Monday, May 4, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Plant security check workers returning to the Cargill beef processing plant in High River, Alta., that was closed for two weeks because of COVID-19 Monday, May 4, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Feds to buy up surplus from Canadian agrifood producers as part of $252M investment

Trudeau announced an additional $200 million credit line for dairy producers

The federal government will invest $252 million in Canada’s agrifood industry, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday (May 5).

The money will be split three ways: $125 million for beef, poultry and pork producers, $77 million for food processors and $50 million to buy up surplus food and avoid waste. Trudeau also announced an additional $200 million credit line for dairy producers.

“Unfortunately there’s been a number of farmers who’ve had to dispose of surplus food,” Trudeau acknowledged when asked if this program was too little, too late as farmers struggle amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The $125 million for producers is meant to cover the costs of cattle and pigs that must stay at the farm for longer, while the $77 million is partially to pay for personal protective equipment. Trudeau said about 90 per cent of expected temporary foreign workers have arrived this spring. Last month, the prime minister announced $50 million to help companies pay for the mandatory 14-day quarantine for workers entering the country.

However, the money announced Tuesday fell short of the $2.6 billion asked for by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. In a press release, the federation said urgent was help was needed now as planting season got underway.

“Farmers need to have the financial confidence that they will not be facing bankruptcy due to impacts of COVID-19,” said federation president Mary Robinson.

Trudeau said there would be more announcements about agriculture and food supply in the days and weeks to come.

At a later press conference, Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said the closures of many restaurants has had a negative impact on the food producers. Bibeau said the surplus food purchased by Ottawa would go towards food banks to help Canadians facing food insecurity during the pandemic.

Bibeau said the federal government would begin by speaking to food banks and producers to determine need and surplus.

Meat-packing workers still worried

The union that represents meat-packing workers at Cargill and JBS has argued that it is still not safe inside the facilities and more needs to be done.

“People are scared. They’re not coming to work,” said Thomas Hesse, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401. Workers at the Cargill plant in Alberta went back to work Monday, even though many remained concerned about COVID-19 spreading in the facility. More than 900 of 2,000 workers have tested positive for the novel coronavirus and one person has died.

The Agriculture Union, which represents federal food inspectors, said Trudeau’s announcement misses the mark and will do little to address cramped quarters in hallways, lunchrooms and washrooms at meat plants.

“If we had been consulted, we would have advised the federal government to get off the sidelines and exercise their responsibility and authority over federally regulated food processors when there are outbreaks, and to shut them down when they are not safe,” said union president Fabian Murphy.

“Generally speaking, a handout to processors is not going to solve the issue of protecting workers safety if they cannot access adequate personal protective gear.”

READ MORE: Canada unveils $50M boost to help agriculture sector with 14-day COVID-19 quarantine

READ MORE: B.C. egg, chicken farms facing down challenge of COVID-19

READ MORE: Two more confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Chilliwack poultry plant


@katslepian

katya.slepian@bpdigital.ca

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