Herculean efforts amongst government and industry are keeping Canada’s food supply intact as the COVID-19 virus continues its relentless trajectory. The priorities include: continuing access to seasonal labour, guidance for health of workers in the food chain and keeping the Canada/U.S. border open to moving essential goods.
These three themes were foremost in an April 9 members-only webinar hosted by the Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA). Ron Lemaire, president, CPMA, said, “For growers, this has been a very complex and stressful environment, especially as it pertains to accessing labour.”
Lemaire tapped senior bureaucrats to give updates from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Global Affairs Canada, Public Health Agency of Canada, Canada Border Service Agency.
Tom Rosser, assistant deputy minister, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, complimented the agricultural industry for its ability to quickly coalesce around new rules for bringing seasonal agricultural workers to Canada, with 1,100 workers arriving from April 1 to 9 and an additional 3,500 workers expected in the next week. But he also warned of gaps in the food chain with growing absenteeism in the labour force, due to childcare needs and compliance with social distancing. These tensions have been witnessed already in the meat processing industry.
In her 25 years with the Public Health Agency of Canada, Lisa Landry said, “This is the most difficult time we have ever faced together.” She’s with the agency’s Centre for Food-Borne, Environmental and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. There are specific challenges for food producers in terms of social distancing for tasks such as transplanting and grading. On April 7, the nation’s chief medical officer updated advice on use of face masks in public spaces, to preserve supplies of medical masks for frontline health workers.
“These are not personal protective equipment,” said Landry. “It’s an extension of hygiene etiquette.”
In the case of a worker diagnosed as positive with COVID-19, the local public health unit will be involved in a “contact and trace” outreach to determine the social interaction in the workplace. Decisions about who must self-isolate will be based on site-specific circumstances.
Landry emphasized, “Hygiene will be important. Employers, think about how to encourage employees to wash hands more frequently.”
With regards to movement of essential goods across the Canada/U.S. border, Fred Gaspar, director-general, Canada Border Services Agency, said that traffic was moving well. Keeping border crossings open is currently dependent on volumes and keeping employees safe. “A few border crossings might be scaled back depending on volumes,” he said.
“Cross-border operations have never flowed this seamlessly in the last 10 years,” commented one webinar participant. “We are witnessing an unprecedented heightened level of efficient cooperation between the two agencies (Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Canada Border Services Agency), creating a proactive approach to managing mutually limited resources as it pertains to imported produce. This is particular to the U.S. which makes up 50 per cent of produce supply in Canada.”
Despite a frenetic pace on day-to-day developments in the food chain, Doug Forsythe, director-general for market access, Global Affairs Canada, pointed out that flow of trade has never been more important. Although both Canada and Mexico have ratified the new Canada-U.S.-Mexico (CUSMA) trade agreement, the United States has not communicated its notice to proceed.
It takes 90 days after that ratification, for the new trading rules to be in effect, Forsythe explained. “The most likely scenario is that the agreement would be declared about July 1.”