The Cargill Inc. meatpacking plant at High River (Photo: High River Online).

Alberta Labour’s occupational health and safety inspector didn’t actually visit the Cargill Inc. meatpacking plant in High River when the ministry inspected its COVID-19 safety measures on April 15.

Instead, the Labour Ministry inspector watched with FaceTime as three employees conducted “a virtual plant inspection.”

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 President Tom Hesse (Photo: Facebook).

With the United Conservative Party Government determined to keep the plant open, another five days would pass while COVID-19 spread within the facility, and in the community, before the company moved to shut down the slaughterhouse itself.

Mark Wells, a lawyer employed by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, which represents workers at the plant where one of Alberta’s worst outbreaks of COVID-19 has taken place, posted an inspection report from the ministry on Twitter Monday night.

Yesterday, UFCW 401 spokesperson Michael Hughes confirmed the union has knowledge the inspection was conducted with FaceTime, a product developed by Apple Inc. for use on smartphones.

UFCW 401 lawyer Mark Wells (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

The ministry contact report attached to Mr. Wells’s tweet describes how the April 15 “virtual inspection” was done by the plant’s technical safety monitor and two staff members, who the inspector took care to note were union members.

The inspection was in the form of a FaceTime video recorded by Cargill Ltd. — the Canadian subsidiary of Minnesota-based Cargill Inc. “A copy of the employer’s virtual inspection was provided to OHS officer on April 16,” the document states.

The inspection covered several sections of the plant, the report said, but not the kill floor because cattle were not being slaughtered on the day of the inspection.

In the report, the ministry inspector noted the Cargill safety officer said that as of the next day, April 16, all employees would be required to wear “a minimum surgical mask.” Accordingly, the report concluded that the employer had acted, “as far as it is reasonably practicable for the employer to do so” to ensure the health, safety and welfare of plant workers, and others in the vicinity.

Alberta Health Services first inspected the Cargill plant on April 7, when the first COVID-19 cases were confirmed, UFCW 401 President Tom Hesse said in a statement late yesterday. “UFCW Local 401 doesn’t know when exactly they came because the union wasn’t included in that process,” he said. “When UFCW asked for a written report from the AHS inspection, the union was told there was none, and that AHS Calgary Zone, relied on ‘verbal reports’ from its staff that the plant was safe.”

Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

On April 12, workers at the plant had sent High River Mayor Craig Snodgrass a letter urging the plant be closed for two weeks in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. “We the workers and our families are worried and scared for the possibility that we might bring the virus with us at home,” the letter said.

The same day, which was Easter Sunday, Hesse wrote Cargill management warning “there is no reason to believe that hundreds of individuals in your working environment won’t soon be carrying the virus.” He too urged the plant be closed for two weeks. The letter was cc’d to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Labour Minister Jason Copping. Mr. Hesse was ignored.

On April 16, the day Cargill promised to start having packinghouse employees wear masks, Alberta Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen took to Twitter to accuse Opposition Leader Rachel Notley of “misinformation and fearmongering” for saying workers at the plant had been laid off or had their hours cut for complaining about unsafe working conditions. In a tweet that hasn’t aged well, Mr. Dreeshen said the former NDP premier was “dishonest to hardworking Albertans and threatens Alberta food security.”

Premier Jason Kenney (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

But as far back as April Fool’s Day, in response to a question in the Legislature about COVID-19 at another meatpacking plant, Mr. Dreeshen said “food processing facilities have implemented additional sanitation procedures to ensure that the safety of their workers and their inspectors is paramount.”

Meanwhile, according to a CBC report, the company continued to pressure employees who thought they had been in contact with COVID-19 to come back to work, even if they had tested positive for the virus.

Last Saturday, Mr. Dreeshen, Mr. Copping and Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw held a telephone town hall with Cargill employees at which workers were again assured, in the agriculture minister’s words, “their worksite is safe.”

Labour Minister Jason Copping (Photo: Screenshot of CTV video).

On Monday, after confirmation there had been 484 COVID-19 infections related to the outbreak at the High River plant, 360 of them among employees, the company announced it was temporarily closing the facility. One infected worked has died.

By contrast, when a single employee of a Vancouver poultry plant was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Sunday, B.C. officials tested 71 employees Monday, identified 27 cases, and immediately closed the facility.

Now, you may think doing “virtual inspections” is an exceptionally bad idea if the point is actually to prove working conditions are healthy and safe — not merely to let a corporation tick off a box saying it has met its legal OH&S expectations.

Red Tape Reduction Minister Grant Hunter (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

How would you feel, for example, if you learned Alberta Health Services was now conducting virtual food-safety inspections via FaceTime or Zoom?

That might seem to you almost as bad an idea as having a checkup by your physician done via a smartphone app that uses “artificial intelligence” to help with your diagnosis — which, come to think of it, is something this government is also promoting for the front lines of Alberta’s public health care system.

Apparently, though, the idea is fine as far as the UCP is concerned. Yesterday, Mr. Copping’s press secretary tweeted, “video inspections mitigate the risk of exposure of all parties during this pandemic.

“This format is NOT specific or unique to the Cargill facility,” Adrienne South said. “It’s fully interactive and the inspector can direct movement.”

UCP Press secretary Adrienne South (Photo: Facebook).

Compare this to how Premier Kenney reacted when Canada Food Inspection Agency inspectors wouldn’t enter the Harmony Beef Co. Ltd. plant at Balzac, just north of Calgary, after an employee there was diagnosed with COVID-109.

Vowing “to see if we can instead substitute Alberta inspectors into that facility, or any other facilities,” Mr. Kenney complained on March 27 that “we cannot have the CFIA effectively impairing our entire livestock industry by having people refusing to go on the job.” In fact, the inspectors had been instructed by CFIA supervisors not to enter the plant.

Ms. South was right about one thing, though: the province has used the technique elsewhere. According to sources close to the industry, that was at the JBS SA meatpacking plant in Brooks, where there has also been an outbreak of COVID-19 among workers and in the community.

Somehow, though, the fact it’s been done before doesn’t seem like a good defence. Ms. South might have missed the point of the public’s concern.

Maybe the UCP will now tell us they’re permanently closing down public schools and replacing them with online classes unless you can afford private instruction for your kids.

Don’t just shrug off such possibilities, as crazy as they sound. As it’s already shown, the UCP Government has a mania for austerity and “red tape” reduction, especially if they’re convenient for corporations or allow the government to cut corners while claiming to fulfill its obligations.

Pushing the Babylon medical app may have been a leading indicator of this tendency, not a dumb idea that will soon be corrected.

Normalizing “virtual” safety inspections conducted by a company manager with a couple of employees in tow sounds like exactly the sort of policy the Grant Hunter’s “Ministry of Red Tape Reduction” would come up with, and might just implement if we fail to pay close attention.

NOTE: This story has been updated with information from Tom Hesse’s statement yesterday.

Join the Conversation


  1. The level of incompetence this government displays has to surprise even the most pessimistic Albertans, I knew it would be bad but they have surpassed even my expectations. What will they do next give away medical grade masks to other provinces and replace them with Chinese knock offs? Oh wait…

  2. The issues mentioned in this article about an American Cargill plant are things a real inspector, not a virtual one, might notice:

    “The blue hats (lead foremen) and up are the only ones that get face masks,” a former Cargill employee whose partner still works there said.”

    Why is it that the premier only inspects Edmonton International Airport in person?

  3. No doubt about it, you’re living in the Brave New World of Right Wing Horseshit, David. Worryingly, so are members of my family in Calgary.

    And due to the excessive whining of the UCP, we other Canadians are being tapped for funds to prop up a largely foreign-owned petro state in decline, which the bumbling Trudeau seems happy to provide.

    If past Alberta premiers had possessed even the barest minimum of common sense or vision, the bulk export of oil with no concurrent development of local manufacturing industry in “plastics” was as parochial as one can get. Indeed, it is the Canadian story across the country. Sell mounds of low value unprocessed bulk ores and oil and kraft paper, and spend no time whatsoever to secure future jobs by utilizing our resources in making finished goods for consumers, where the bulk of the value lies in the chain from extraction to consumer good. The South Korean rise since the mid 1980s makes us look like stumbling dopes by comparison. We have squandered our opportunities at every turn right from the beginning to merely post a return for uninterested investors. Good government? You be the judge. As an engineer, I was always disappointed.

    I first heard of Cargill in the early 1980s. One of my employees, an ex-American who had quit California and married a PEIslander in the late 1960s, owned a farm in PEI where he grew wheat on his own and rented acreage. Not spuds, wheat. The yields there are amazing on a per acre basis – it’s a lush spot from May till October. Almost fairy tale-like in the woods and glades, just beautiful. No wonder that’s where the Anne of Green Gables stories came from – it reminds me of parts of Devon in England. The coastline is just divine as well. Until winter, when the entire place transforms into a hell hole!

    An extremely energetic fellow, my guy took off every Friday night in season for the weekend from Halifax to tend his farm, and his vacations coincided with seeding and harvesting. I myself spent a week in May 1985 helping him out to see what it was like, plowing, hoeing, fertilizing and seeding. Hard damn work! Still, I got to drive a fairly enormous four wheel drive Ford County tractor, and two huge regular Masseys and as a mechanical engineer it was great if tiring fun. He was not complimentary about Cargill, because they monopolistically/duopolistically set the price in North America for wheat along with some other US outfit whose name I cannot now remember and the two ran the show, excepting for the Canadian Wheat Board as the only counterpoise. Cargill these days has a turnover of US$115 billion a year, and is one of the biggest privately-owned companies extant.

    Pretty obvious Cargill doesn’t give a ratsass about its employees in Alberta. And also that kenney doesn’t care about Albertans. His preening involves only advancing his personal brand among the already brain-dead. Like Trump, he seems to get away with it. God knows why or how.

  4. UCP political smoke and mirrors won’t save Alberta from COVID-19 infections or deaths.

    Kudos to the Alberta Federation of Labour and the UFCW for calling for an OHS criminal investigation into the COVID-19 death of the Cargill meat processing employee and a further RCMP investigation into the operation of the plant under the “Westray Act” (see link below). It’s time to hold Cargill and the Kenney government accountable — they’ve now got blood on their hands!

  5. “…the safety of their workers and their inspectors is paramount.”

    I have grown increasingly cynical about reassurances from company officials who insist that the safety of their customers is their top priority. Do they really think they are convincing us that they would stand up at a shareholders’ meeting and explain that profits are down because they spent extra money on a safety program?

    Personally, when I someone says ‘your safety is our top priority’ what I hear is, ‘not only did we not care until this tragedy occurred, we think you are stupid enough to believe that…’.

  6. So the economy of Alberta is at a standstill, the good citizens locked away, everyone hoping for this pestilence to end and the UCP are willing to risk it all for the AG. lobby. Ok, I realize there’s alot on the line for the beef industry but we have all sacrificed. This Devin Dreeshan was more than willing to gamble the workers lives and then slandered Rachel Notley for standing up for them. This is the same UCP MLA whose father is conservative MP for the same area.
    Of course all of this gross incompetence is manifesting because of the “player” in chief Jason Kenney. His will be done. He sold himself in the election as a “leader”. His strongest leadership qualities that I can see are whining,crying,blaming,threatening and begging.
    He was pleading on the radio for more help (money) for his precious oilpatch the other day, this after 12 Billion for TransMountain, 2 Billion for orphan well clean up plus his 1 billion stake in Keystone( plus billions in loan guarantees). I ask you Jason…Is this the Alberta Way? Is this leadership?
    I say the people of Alberta have been had. I say we can’t wait four more years of the UCP. I say we recall all of them.

  7. Virtual school was on Gastropod Ford’s agenda in Ontario long before anybody was talking about the bug. Were Tailgunner Jay and the Grifter Gang likely to let that crazy train pass?

  8. Well, I guess we might be seeing how all of this, i.e.virtual safety inspections, the high incidence of the virus, one employee death and one employee in ICU on a ventilator, the spread to the long term care facility…..despite warnings, requests, letters….will stand up in court.
    One would wonder, if and when, the UCP government, ‘The Bigs'(the big corps)…..get trimmed down. As it is, the attitude seems to be anything can be said and done with impunity….money before people.
    Perhaps, COVID-19 has generated a big wakeup call re: ‘big,’ i.e.big cruise ships, big feedlots, big packing plants, big long term care facilities….anywhere humans are packed in and/or housed together. Perhaps, ‘bigger’ could be proving to be, not necessarily, ‘better.’

  9. Endangering the lives of meat packing plant workers is one thing, but when AIMCO pisses away $4 Billions in losses that is quite another matter amirite?

    So, even if UPC and their supporters don’t care about human lives, I wonder if they care about all the money being flushed down the toilet by AIMCO. Who will be held accountable for that disaster?

    We are on our own folks!

  10. Are big factory farms good stewards of animal resources? As people line up at American grocery stores and food banks for food giveaways, here’s another Cargill story about the cull of 61,000 egg-producing chickens. How secure is the food supply chain when things like this happen? Who will ensure the safety and very existence of the North American food dupply, and its workers?

    1. The farmer in question was in the United States under contract to a private corporation calling the shots. Up here chicken, turkey, and egg farmers have a marketing board that makes sure production matches Canadian demand with minimum waste. The US system is industrial feudalism for farmers while Canadian farmers actually control their own production in these commodities.
      As the National Farmers Union said yesterday, the weak link in both systems are the big central processors as we are seeing right now in beef slaughter.

  11. And thanks to the Cargill fiasco, seniors living in retirement residences (not to be confused with continuing care) on the south end of Calgary are now confined to their rooms for meals. Previously, they were able to eat in the dining room in shifts, complying with physical distancing. This was their only social contact, as their buildings have been in lockdown since mid-March.

    Why, you ask? Remember those Cargill workers? We already knew that they share living quarters with workers at continuing care centres, but some of those workers live in Calgary, with Calgary senior care workers. This is the perfect storm. The Cargill outbreak may take the lives of Calgary seniors now. I very much hope that some intrepid reporter asks the CMOH about this. This order came diwn last night, likely due to contact tracing of Covid-19 cases from Cargill.

    Cargill’s death toll could include seniors in Calgary’s south now. Irresponsible is too mild a word for what is about to happen.

  12. FaceTime works well for some things, but apparently not meat plant inspections. Who knew? Well, apparently not the idiots currently in charge of our provincial government.

    I suppose they had a dilemma. They wanted to keep the plant open at all costs, but inspectors probably were reluctant to go there. Well now it is clear that they succeeded at the “all costs” part and perhaps they will have to wear the consequences of their stupid decisions. Unfortunately, so too will the plant workers and the people of High River and area.

  13. It seems to me culpability is evident: authorities responsible for workplace safety and, particularly, for food and food-worker safety at meat packing plants told workers it was safe to go to work—even when the authorities knew it wasn’t because of COVID19. Further, face-masks weren’t provided for workers until the contagion was well out of hand. In addition, plant managers and government officials appear to have excluded the workers’ union from any assessments of potential disease risks in order to dismiss workers’ concerns. And, to top it off, a minister of the Crown tried to blame the leader of the Loyal Opposition for somehow harming Alberta workers when she warned in the legislature that platitudes workers had been getting from authorities posed serious risks to not only worker-safety, but also social health and the industry itself—in short, tried to make distracting, hyper-partisan hay by demonizing both the governing party’s chief political rival (that is, ‘shooting-the-messanger’) and labour unions, by implication, even though the government’s primary duty is to protect all citizens from the danger of COVID19.

    The UCP did a bad thing that has hurt citizens, tried to hide it by lying (which hurt even more citizens), then tried to blame the party which warned of the potential—now proved—for harm if safety steps were neglected —which, indeed, they were, harming even more citizens.

    I supposed one helluva lawsuit, apparently warranted, has to wait for this pandemic, and particularly with respect workers at these picking plants and their families infected by subsequent contact, to play out more fully in order to include everyone who’s been harmed by inspection negligence, false assurances of safety, and pathetically preposterous attempts to shift culpability which delays taking proper action, now long overdue.

    The only thing that makes sense is if the governing UCP party thinks its well-known anti-union ethos licences the infection and potential killing of unionized workers who contract COVID19 at their workplace. It seems impossible any government could do such a bad job by accident, especially after being repeatedly warned. Perhaps the UCP message to what it considers partisan heresy is, nya-nay-nya-nya-nya.

    I’d like to see that tried in a court of law. Could start with criminal negligence.

  14. I guess this was a rehearsal for the operation of that Babylon app.

    “Doctor. I believe my leg is broken. It’s bent.”

    “Nope. That looks like nothing to me. Geez. This wireless is bad today. Maybe not broken — could be gout, though.”

  15. My solution to business owners who claim that their plant is safe is to require the top shareholders to visit the plant in person for one day and talk to their workers to show their belief that that is the case. If they show up, I could start to believe them. Apply the same to nuclear power plant owners. They will show they have their skin in the game. Otherwise we know they don’t really believe it themselves.

  16. With regard to virtual inspections and the Ministry of Red Tape Reduction I can’t help but think about Monty Python’s Society for Putting Things on top of Other Things

  17. A little bit of cronyism here and a little bit of patronage there and pretty soon you have yourself a nice little kleptocracy that just loves to keep the old corporate state revolving door well lubricated. And that is why the landscape just never seems to change in the Canadian petro-state/wannabe energy super power, with the same old people, with the same old partners, doing that same old song and dance.

    It is odd that all of the private enterprise/free market types always have to come back to the state in order to both remain solvent and to top up their own very private salaries.

    “Kinney noted that several of the companies that have received AIMCo investments are financial supporters of the UCP or of groups that support the party.”

    “Those companies are in the tank for UCP,” he said. “The links are troubling.”

    “At least one company has gone bankrupt despite the injection of tens of millions of pension dollars.”

    The looting of the government, the public financial commons and its seemingly endless supply of money, for private benefit, is the preferred game in town it seems. A model perfected by the Americans and imported into Texas of the North.

  18. When I first saw this story, the first thing I thought was, if it wasn’t safe for WH&S inspectors to go into the plant, how could it have be safe for the workers … ???

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