Public health officials say there are at least two dozen cases of COVID-19 at a Maple Lodge Farms meat-processing facility in Brampton, Ont., making it the latest North American food plant to be hit by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
The company waited nearly three weeks before publicly disclosing the first positive case, according to internal documents obtained by Global News.
The growing number of cases comes after the company released a statement confirming Maple Lodge had its “first positive cases of COVID-19 amongst employees” but didn’t indicate how many workers had become infected.
A letter to employees dated April 16, and obtained by Global News, indicated the company became aware on April 15 that an employee had tested positive for the virus.
“The employee’s last day worked was April 6,” the letter said. “In accordance with Maple Lodge Farm’s COVID-19 protocols they have been out of the workplace and in self-isolation since learning on that date, that their spouse had tested positive for the virus.”
“The employee at that time had no symptoms.”
Peel Public Health said in a statement that between “April 8th and April 30th, 24 cases of COVID-19 have been reported at the Maple Lodge Farms facility.”
“Peel Public Health continues to work with Maple Lodge Farms in the investigation and support of those involved,” the local health unit said.
There are now 25 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to Tim Deelstra, spokesperson for UFCW locals 175 and 633, representing nearly 1,200 full-time employees at the plant.
“Our members are concerned, and we have done our best to follow up on all of these cases,” Deelstra said. “We deal with all the concerns very seriously and try to find as many options as we can for those people. We have been in touch with the employer on a daily basis, multiple times a day.”
Maple Lodge Farms did not immediately respond to requests for comments from Global News.
The company publicly acknowledged the “first positive cases” on Monday, 20 days after they became aware of the first case.
“Given the prevalence of the virus in our communities and the large number of people we employ, we were prepared for this eventuality,” Maple Lodge Farms said in a statement
Peel Public Health was notified and an in-depth investigation and risk assessment took place with the Canada Food Inspection Agency, according to the company.
“Based on the findings of the investigation, Peel Public Health provides directions to MLF as to what actions must be taken, which we have followed very closely, in addition to implementing any extra precautionary measures we deem necessary,” the statement continued.
Concerned family members of workers at the Brampton plant say they are upset the company waited nearly three weeks before publicly disclosing the positive cases. Global News has agreed not to identify the family members over fears of workplace reprisal.
One spouse of an employee who is currently in isolation after being tested for COVID-19 said they are upset the company isn’t taking enough steps to protect workers.
“The way they are doing it is wrong,” said the spouse. “Why aren’t they shutting down? Do a deep clean, have everyone isolate for two weeks and then return.”
“I don’t think Maple Lodge employees are their main priority.”
“They are looking for profit over people’s health,” the spouse said.
Another concerned family of a Maple Lodge worker said it’s been “stressful” waiting for updates from the company and the rising cases.
“Every other day [my partner] comes home and somebody has tested positive,” they said. “I don’t want my family getting sick.”
Maple Lodge says it has implemented social distancing at the plant, but slaughterhouses throughout Canada have become prone to outbreaks of COVID-19, with people working shoulder-to-shoulder to process beef, poultry or pork.
The Cargill meat-packing plant in southern Alberta has been the site of the largest outbreaks in Canada with over 1,500 cases linked to the plant, 949 employees testing positive and one death, according to public health officials.
Cargill closed its facility, but reopened on May 4.
The second largest is at JBS Canada’s beef facility in Brooks, Alta., where 390 workers have tested positive.
The family members of Maple Lodge employees said while the workers have access to proper protective equipment, like face shields, they aren’t worn in crowded spaces like lunchrooms or entrances.
Smaller outbreaks led to the closures of plants at Maple Leaf Foods poultry plant in Brampton on April 8, after three workers test positive for coronavirus. A total of five workers tested positive.
In B.C., Vancouver Coastal Health closed United Poultry Co. Ltd. after 28 positive cases were confirmed.
In the U.S, COVID-19 cases among workers in 115 meat and poultry processing facilities were reported by 19 states, with 4,913 cases and 20 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The structure of these meat plants is that people are in a very tight proximity,” Deelstra said. “In any setting where you have big groups of people it increases the risk of the virus spreading.”
“We appreciate the food supply chain is important, but we also very much appreciate that our workers’ safety is of primary importance.”
–With files from Mike De Souza
© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.