1 dead, 24 Maple Leaf Foods employees infected with COVID-19 at Montreal plant

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Editor’s note: This article was updated at 4:23 p.m. ET on May 15, 2020 with new statements from Maple Leaf Foods and additional details about outbreaks at food plants in Canada. It was updated again at 7:27 p.m. with additional comments from Maple Leaf Foods and a union representing workers outside of Quebec.

One employee is dead and multiple employees are infected with COVID-19 following an outbreak at a Maple Leaf Foods plant in a low-income Montreal neighbourhood that has been hit hard by the novel coronavirus.

The worker died on April 19 and is among at least 59 Maple Leaf employees working in seven different plants across its North American network who have been infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, the Mississauga, Ont.-based company said in a message posted on its website.

The deceased employee was working at the company’s Viau plant in the Montreal North neighbourhood. As of May 13, this neighbourhood had the highest number of cases and the highest rate of infection on the Island of Montreal, according to the latest statistics released by local health officials.

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“He began working at the plant in July of 2017 and was known for his hard work, his loyalty and dedication,” Maple Leaf Foods spokeswoman Janet Riley told Global News on Friday. “Everyone at Viau and throughout Maple Leaf was deeply saddened by the news.”

Riley described the plant as a “close-knit community” that now has 24 positive cases, including one employee who remains hospitalized.

She said that all of the others had recovered or were on the road to recovery.

“Unfortunately, the districts in which our Montreal North team members tend to live are communities that have been among the hardest hit by COVID in all of Quebec and even in Canada, and this has likely contributed to the cases we’ve had our plant,” Riley said.

READ MORE: Montreal North screening clinic for COVID-19 to stay open until Thursday

 

 

Riley said Maple Leaf Foods has also had two confirmed cases of COVID-19 at a Viau plant in Laval, just north of Montreal. The company says it temporarily suspended operations at the Montreal North plant for three days from April 13 to April 16 after learning employees were infected, but it didn’t suspend operations at the Laval plant. Neither of the two Quebec plants have unions.

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Maple Leaf Foods also temporarily suspended operations for two weeks at a unionized poultry plant in Brampton, Ont., in early April after some workers tested positive for the novel coronavirus. In total, 24 workers tested positive for the virus at this Brampton plant, according to a union spokesman.

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The employee from the Montreal North plant who died wasn’t the first one with a confirmed case of COVID-19 at that facility, Riley said. But it wasn’t immediately clear where he contracted the disease.

“It’s impossible to determine precisely the source of transmission of COVID, especially when the virus is widespread in certain communities, as it is in Montreal-North and Brampton,” she said.

Riley added that the company has had no new cases reported anywhere in its network for eight days, but was remaining vigilant in its battle against the virus.

“We are thankful that most are recovering well or have recovered,” the company wrote in its COVID-19 message, last updated on May 8. “However, we (are) deeply saddened by the passing of a valued team member at our Viau North Montreal (plant on) Sunday, April 19. As we support our affected team members, we will also continue to be vigilant with our protective measures.”

The company said in its statement that it responded to confirmed cases of COVID-19 by following best practices recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. It said it also collaborates with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and public health authorities to make the best decisions possible in each situation.

“At each of the affected plants, we immediately implemented our COVID-19 response plans, making sure that all health, safety and sanitation measures were implemented, including deep cleaning procedures and notification of any co-workers who had close contact with these individuals,” the company’s statement read.

Story continues below advertisement 2:15 Coronavirus: Quebec ramps up screening strategy for the Greater Montreal area Coronavirus: Quebec ramps up screening strategy for the Greater Montreal area

While the Viau plants in Montreal North and Laval aren’t unionized, most of the workers at Maple Leaf Foods in other Canadian locations are unionized through the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

Maple Leaf Foods closed a deal to acquire Viau Foods, a company that produced prepared meat products such as Italian cooked meats, sausages, pizza toppings and premium charcuterie products, for $215 million in November 2018. At the time, Maple Leaf Foods said that Viau employed 470 people at the Montreal plant and a separate plant in Laval, north of Montreal.

Currently, Riley said it employs 264 people in Montreal North and 391 people at the Laval plant.

“The wages at both facilities remain competitive to the market,” she said. “On March 23, we announced a $80 per week bonus for our frontline employees that remains in effect. We are also offering our employees a wage top up of 75 per cent if they are off work for a variety of COVID-related reasons including COVID illness, symptoms or self-isolation due to known exposure to someone with COVID.”

Overall, Maple Leaf Foods employs over 12,500 people, with sales of over $3 billion in more than 20 global markets, including Canada, the U.S. and Asia.

It is among a number of food processing companies that have faced serious outbreaks in North America, including Cargill, JBS, Maple Lodge Farms and Saputo.

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In Quebec, UFCW spokeswoman Roxane Larouche confirmed that there were at least 66 cases at a Cargill plant in Chambly, on the south shore of Montreal, prompting a temporary shutdown of the facility.

READ MORE: Coronavirus — Officials failed to protect Montreal’s vulnerable neighbourhoods, activists say

But Larouche said that Cargill already had a nurse on site in Chambly, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and responded rapidly after employees started showing symptoms. She said the company has already tested more than 400 out of about 500 employees in recent days, with results still pending.

The UFCW has been urging the Ontario government to introduce a program to test all workers at food processing plants, as Cargill did in Chambly, as part of efforts to ensure the employees remain healthy.

Another plant operated by Olymel in Yamachiche, about 150 kilometres northeast of Montreal, had 129 confirmed cases and shut down during the first two weeks of April before reopening on April 13, said Larouche.

Montreal has become the epicentre of Canada’s COVID-19 outbreak, with tens of thousands of cases and more than 3,000 deaths.

In Montreal North, a low-income neighbourhood where nearly half the population is made up of visible minorities and immigrants, local public health officials set up temporary walk-in clinics for screening in recent days.

READ MORE: Montreal North implementing new measures to stem spread of COVID-19

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Jean Nicolas Aubé, a spokesman for a central health authority in Montreal, said local public health officials were working with Viau Foods and confirmed the company had put in place measures to protect its workers.

Local public health officials have confirmed about 150 deaths in the Montreal-North neighbourhood that are linked to COVID-19.

“We are proud of our Viau team members and grateful for their commitment to our company during this unprecedented time and despite their sadness in the loss of a team member,” said Riley from Maple Leaf Foods. “They truly are heroes.”

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