$252M emergency aid package coming for farmers, food plants hit by COVID-19

The Liberal government unveiled a multimillion-dollar aid package this morning aimed at helping farmers and food processors safely navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic — aid that comes in response to concerns about food security in Canada and the health of vulnerable food sector workers.

But the funding envelope — an “initial amount,” according to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — falls far short of the $2.6 billion emergency fund requested by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.

Trudeau announced a new $77 million fund for food processors of various sizes, including meat packers, to help these businesses retrofit their factories and increase their capacity to deal with a backlog of livestock building up in parts of the county.

Watch: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks about federal role in keeping meat plant workers safe

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes questions from CBC’s Tom Parry on why it’s up to the federal government to ensure international meat packing companies keep their workers safe. 1:20

The money can be used to buy personal protective equipment for workers, adapt to health protocols and support other social distancing measures, said the prime minister during his daily briefing outside of Rideau Cottage today.

The money can be used to make conditions safer for workers on the line — but an official in Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau’s office stressed that occupational health and safety is a provincial issue.

The government also is expected to add $125 million to the AgriRecovery fund, a federal-provincial-territorial program aimed at helping farmers during disasters.

“For many farmers, this crisis means that they have to keep animals for longer periods of time, and that can be expensive. So, with this funding, we’re giving extra help to beef and pork producers so they can adapt to the crisis,” said Trudeau.

“This is an initial investment and if we need to add more, we will.”

The cattle industry has been pushing for this type of funding to help cover the cost of extended stays in feedlots — something similar to the “set-aside” program in place during the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (“mad cow disease”) outbreak.

The government also wants to expand the Canadian Dairy Commission Act to allow it to buy and store more surplus dairy products — like cheese and butter — to avoid more instances of milk dumping.

$50M surplus purchase program

For other commodities, Trudeau is pledging at least $50 million for a purchase program for surplus foods, similar to what’s available for some farmers in the U.S. Such a program could help the french-fried potato industry, which has seen plummeting sales because restaurants have been closed from coast to coast since the beginning of the pandemic.

“The government will buy large quantities of certain products at risk of going to waste — say, potatoes or poultry — and redistribute them to organizations addressing food insecurity,” said Trudeau.

“This will help ensure that our farmers are being compensated for their hard work and that our most vulnerable have access to fresh food during this crisis.”

Watch: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked about size of agrifood aid package

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with reporters on Tuesday 1:37

The announcement comes as some farmers begin the spring planting season — and as some are warning that producers could start culling their animals to cope with reduced capacity at some of the country’s largest meat processing plants, a sector that’s been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture has been warning that a financial boost is urgently needed to protect against food shortages in Canada. It called for a $2.6 billion emergency fund last Thursday.

The government is also expected to add $125 million to the AgriRecovery fund, a federal-provincial-territorial program aimed at helping farmers during disasters. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/The Associated Press)

“We understand that the entire country is under duress. Agriculture is a unique player in our economy. Not only does agriculture create value for our economy, act as stewards of our environment and employ over two million Canadians, agriculture also provides us the unique benefit of food — not only for Canada but for the world at large,” said federation president Mary Robinson in a statement issued on April 30.

“Planting season is happening right now. Mother Nature waits for no one. Farmers need to have the financial confidence that they will not be facing bankruptcy due to impacts of COVID-19.”

When asked about the federation’s multi-billion request, Trudeau said more will need to be done.

“We know that there is more to do and we will keep working with them to determine exactly how we can best help,” he said.

“This is an initial investment and if we need to add more, we will.”

Alberta meat plant reopens amid controversy

The federation has been calling for the creation of an emergency preparedness fund specifically for farmers dealing with increased expenses and obstacles due to the pandemic. It also wants the federal government to ensure farmers and food processors have the personal protective equipment they need to do their jobs safely.

Tuesday’s announcement comes one day after the Cargill meat processing plant near High River, Alta., reopened. It closed more than two weeks ago after an outbreak swept through the plant.

More than 900 of Cargill’s 2,000 workers have tested positive for the novel coronavirus and one worker has died, making the plant the site of the largest single COVID-19 outbreak in Canada.

The union that represents the workers is asking a court to stop work at the plant and has also filed unfair labour practice complaints against Cargill and the province.

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