Olymel temporarily shuts Alberta pork plant with COVID-19 outbreak

RED DEER, Alta. — Olymel has announced it is temporarily closing a pork plant in central Alberta where health officials say hundreds of COVID-19 cases are now connected with an outbreak at the facility.

In a statement Monday, the company said management no longer believes its hog slaughtering, cutting and deboning plant in Red Deer can be operated safely and efficiently.

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A provincial spokesperson said in an email that there are 326 confirmed cases and 192 active cases connected to the outbreak.

The company had earlier said the outbreak began in November, but it wasn't until Jan. 20 that there was a significant rise in infections and one person later died.

"Olymel sincerely hopes that all employees at the Red Deer plant who have tested positive for COVID-19 soon regain their health. The company will follow up with all employees to ensure their quarantine period is being respected and will strongly encourage all staff to get tested before returning to work," a statement on Monday said.

"Olymel will also continue ongoing investigations to determine what may have caused such a large outbreak of Covid-19 cases since January 20."

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 president Thomas Hesse said the union is relieved after it had been calling for a closure for weeks, but he said there's no word on whether the 1,850 workers will be paid while the plant is shut.

He said the union is investigating if the workers qualify for existing government assistance programs.

"They've come to their senses and agreed to hit the pause button," Hesse said in a phone interview Monday evening.

"The workers are finally feeling relief. They're scared to death. Now we have to figure out the pay issue," he added, noting the union has called for a meeting Thursday with management but hadn't heard back.

Alberta Health Services, the province's provincial health delivery agency, said in an email after the closure was announced that its inspectors have visited the site multiple times since the start of the outbreak.

It said the inspectors reviewed the company’s mitigation measures and safety protocols, and that they continue to be in daily, contact with the site.

"We will continue to work closely with Olymel in reviewing their practices and identifying any areas for improvement should they arise," the AHS email stated.

The email also said that health workers will be providing support, including testing, to Olymel workers and their families.

Olymel said in its statement that over the next few days, plant management will "mobilize the staff necessary to cease operations and complete the facility closure as soon as possible."

It said it has also informed hog suppliers about the closure and has suspended deliveries until further notice.

It said the closure period is "indefinite."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 15, 2021.

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