March 23, 2020 / 9:21 PM / in 2 months

Canada seeks to recall retired meat inspectors, unveils C$5 billion in farm credit

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada is asking recently retired meat inspectors to come back to work as it tries to ease staffing shortages and ensure the food system remains intact during the coronavirus outbreak, officials said on Monday.

Corn is harvested near Austin, Manitoba, Canada March 23, 2020, hours after Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government would offer an additional C$5 billion ($3.4 billion) line of credit for farmers and agricultural producers to help them through the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis. REUTERS/Shannon VanRaes

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) told meat processing plants on Friday it would be reducing the agency’s staffed hours at domestic meat processing plants because of capacity constraints, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the matter.

It was not immediately clear when the reduced staffing, including no overtime and no Saturday shifts, would take effect.

Industry officials fear the CFIA move could cut the output of meat across Canada by 10% or more, said one of the sources.

“There’s a challenge around human resources ... mainly for our inspectors,” Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau told reporters on Monday when asked about the availability of meat inspectors, saying Ottawa was investigating whether provincial officials could help share the burden.

“We are also in the process of hiring new inspectors, training new inspectors, bringing back inspectors who just retired a year or two ago,” she said, but did not give details.

CFIA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Bibeau has said the agriculture sector is an essential industry as Canada grapples with an outbreak of the coronavirus that has seen consumers strip grocery store shelves bare.

Industry officials have said the food supply chain is functioning well despite the increased demand for food.

Earlier on Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Ottawa was immediately making C$5 billion ($3.45 billion) in credit available to cash-crunched farmers and producers.

Those in need of assistance can apply for the funding through Farm Credit Canada (FCC), the country’s biggest agricultural lender, Trudeau said.

Last week, Canada said temporary foreign workers with valid visas, on which the country’s labor-strapped farms rely heavily, would be exempted from tightened border measures.

Nearly 60,000 temporary foreign workers are employed on Canadian farms, many from Mexico and the Caribbean. Foreign workers also make up about 3% of the meat and seafood processors’ labor force.

Bibeau told reporters that Ottawa was negotiating with Guatemala to secure permission for an industry group to operate a designated charter flight to bring farmworkers to Canada.

($1=1.4513 Canadian dollars)

Reporting by Kelsey Johnson in Ottawa; Editing by David Ljunggren and Peter Cooney

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