The Cargill beef-packing plant at High River, Alta., has an outbreak of 11 cases of COVID-19, setting off alarm bells among the staff of about 2,000 who remember how it spread last year and claimed the lives of two workers.
It disrupted Canada’s beef industry, shorting the market and backing cattle up in feedlots. It can handle up to 4,500 head per day and accounts for about a third of Canada’s beef supply.
The outbreak began on Dec. 16, 2020, Alberta Health said, and was reported publicly on the weekend when it reached the threshold of five cases. Seven of the 11 cases remain active.
An outbreak last spring saw at least 950 staff at the facility — nearly half its workforce — test positive.
"This is how the prior Cargill outbreak started. With about 10 cases, and within days it was hundreds of cases, and people were dying," said United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 president Thomas Hesse.
Two workers and one worker's father died in connection with the 2020 outbreak.
An RCMP investigation into the death of Benito Quesada, a 51-year-old immigrant from Mexico and a union shop steward at the plant, is believed to be the first police investigation into a workplace COVID-19 fatality in Canada.
The company is also facing a proposed class-action lawsuit on behalf of individuals who had close contact with Cargill employees during last year's outbreak. The lawsuit alleges the company operated without adequate safeguards despite public health warnings.
The allegations have yet to be tested in court.