Canada’s Olymel LP said on Friday it was shipping pigs to the United States to help clear a backlog of hogs after it had to temporarily close its Red Deer, Alberta, slaughter plant because of a coronavirus outbreak.
Olymel shut the plant on Wednesday and declared force majeure – unforeseeable circumstances that prevent contract fulfilment. Alberta’s health department knows of 426 infections linked to the outbreak, including one death, spokesman Tom McMillan said.
The virus spread fast last spring in Canadian and U.S. meat plants, where people typically work closely together. Cargill Inc temporarily closed a Guelph, Ontario, beef plant in December.
The Alberta backlog amounts to 80,000-90,000 hogs, and Olymel hopes to clear it four to five weeks after the plant reopens, spokesman Richard Vigneault said, adding the timing of reopening was unclear. Olymel has begun shipping pigs that it raised on its own farms to U.S. packers, he said.
If the closure lasts longer than two weeks, costs and pigs will add up quickly, said Darcy Fitzgerald, executive director of Alberta Pork. The farmer group has asked Ottawa to offset extra feed and transport costs, he said.
The federal government is assessing the situation and will provide funding if needed, Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said.
Vigneault said Olymel has laid off the plant’s 1,850 workers. The facility can slaughter 45,000 hogs weekly.
Rival Maple Leaf Foods has increased processing modestly at Brandon, Manitoba to ease the backlog, Vice-President Janet Riley said.
Canada is the world’s third-largest pork exporter.
U.S. pork processors should be able to handle the influx of Canadian hogs if the animals are ready for slaughter over several weeks, said Altin Kalo, agricultural economist for Steiner Consulting.
The United States typically imports 100,000 hogs a week from Canada, according to U.S. government data.
U.S. pork companies have been slaughtering about 2.6 million to 2.7 million hogs per week.