I call this meeting to order.
Welcome everyone to meeting number 28 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health. We're meeting pursuant to the order of reference of May 26, 2020. The committee is resuming its briefing on the Canadian response to the outbreak of the coronavirus.
To ensure an orderly meeting, I would like to outline a few rules to follow. Interpretation in this video conference will work very much like in a regular committee meeting. You have a choice at the bottom of your screen of either floor, English or French. As you are speaking, if you plan to alternate from one language to the other, you will need to also switch the interpretation channel so that it aligns with the language you are speaking. You may also want to allow for a short pause when switching languages.
Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name, except during questioning when the questioner can direct questions to whomever he or she wants to question. When you are ready to speak, you can click on the microphone icon to activate your mike. I remind everyone that all comments by members and witnesses should be addressed through the chair. When you're not speaking, your mike should be on mute.
I would like to now welcome our first panel of witnesses.
From the Agriculture Union, we have Fabian Murphy, national president. From the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, we have Mary Robinson, president, and from the Canning Sauce Company, we have Kim Hatcher, farmer.
We will begin with the Agriculture Union. You have 10 minutes for an opening statement.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and members of the committee. It's my pleasure to be here today.
Approximately, 2,500 food inspectors, including 1,500 front-line meat inspectors, are among those who are members of the Agriculture Union. Their job is to make sure Canadians have safe food. This is a rain or shine kind of job. They are dedicated people who cannot do their jobs from home. They have to show up despite the risks, and they do every day. We call them invisible heroes, because they are hidden from view most of the time yet the work they do is essential. We owe them a great deal.
Reports from inspectors in the field show a wide range of how CFIA handled the pandemic and protected its staff, region to region.
In Alberta, I have received reports that CFIA was late to protect inspectors. It is only in the last few weeks that inspectors in northern Alberta received one package of 50 disposable masks each, at best a three-week supply. Before CFIA supplied its staff in northern Alberta with face shields at the end of April, some inspectors on the morning and afternoon shifts had to share shields supplied by the establishment. At the beginning of the outbreak they went to work every day with just their normal gear: a smock, hard hat and hairnet. There were no gloves, face masks or shields. There are still no latex gloves and N95 masks.
In southern Alberta, CFIA's initial approach was to assure inspectors there were no risks associated with working at the Cargill plant, the site of the largest single outbreak in the country. The situation in Quebec seems to be the total opposite. CFIA has worked closely with us and public health officials to make sure inspectors and veterinarians are safe at work.
The point I want to make here is that there's no consistent national approach by CFIA to deal with outbreaks, and it shows in other ways that I will address momentarily.
Physical distancing in most of the meat production plants in Canada is, in many cases, impossible. I believe proper hazard assessments will determine that the protections provided leave employees vulnerable to this biological hazard, COVID-19, but these assessments have not been done. In fact, conditions in these plants are perfect environments for the virus to grow and persistently lurk. They are cool and humidity levels are high. On top of that, they are extremely noisy environments, so workers must get close to each other to be heard over the constant mechanical noise.
It is no wonder meat packing plants have produced among the highest concentrations of infection during the first wave of the pandemic, higher even than nursing homes in some provinces. As mentioned, the largest single outbreak took place at the Cargill meat packing plant in High River, Alberta. Half of the 2,000 employees working there were infected, including half of the inspectors assigned to that plant.
The health and safety provisions of the Canada Labour Code have not been followed in these plants. As a consequence, the CFIA continues to follow practices that could actually help spread the virus. For example, processed meat inspectors continue to be assigned to multiple facilities. Like long-term workers did when they worked at multiple facilities, inspectors going from plant to plant could actually become vectors for spreading the virus.
The Canada Labour Code requires employers to appoint a qualified person to conduct hazard analysis when there are new threats in the workplace, and to implement plans to mitigate hazards and protect the health and well-being of the workers.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which is responsible for regulating food-producing establishments that are federally licensed, has taken a hands-off approach to ensuring the safety of its employees. Despite being in the early stages of the outbreak, most inspectors had no access to any protective gear, and employees were actually forbidden to wear their own face coverings. Basic precautionary practices such as making alcohol-based hand sanitizers available to inspectors were not followed. CFIA deferred to the meat plants to provide protective equipment to CFIA staff. Inspectors working in plants where the company did not provide its own employees personal protective equipment went without.
When COVID-19 outbreaks occur, as they have on a routine basis in these facilities, there is no consistent approach to addressing the threat to public health and worker safety. CFIA left these decisions in the hands of the individual provincial public health agencies. For example, an outbreak at the Olymel pork production plant in the Montreal area was met with a two-week shutdown of the facility to allow deep cleaning and to allow workers the opportunity to isolate. Only those free of the virus were allowed to resume work when the plant reopened.
On the other hand, the giant XL beef plant in Brooks, Alberta, never shut down when an outbreak occurred, not even for a day. As a result, fully half of the residents of the town of Brooks became infected.
All Canadians, food production workers and inspectors should be protected by the best public health and workplace safety practices no matter where they live.
The federal government has announced a $77-million fund to support worker safety improvements in meat-packing plants. No criteria for how this fund will be distributed have been announced, and it seems unlikely that any of this money will actually be available until the end of September. In our opinion, Canadians will get the biggest bang for their investment of this money if companies are eligible to receive support only if they collaborate with the unions representing workers at their plants. This condition will ensure that the money is wisely spent to achieve the safety objectives of the program.
Around the world we are seeing the second wave of the virus hit countries that have relaxed their COVID lockdowns. I sincerely hope Canada is spared such a fate, but hoping is not good enough. We need a plan for how to avoid a repeat of our food production facilities becoming virus hot spots.
We recommend the following: a national approach when outbreaks occur in food processing establishments; the implementation of parts X and XIX of the Canada occupational health and safety regulations in all facilities to mitigate these risks; the requirement that companies, as a condition of receiving any support from the emergency processing fund, work co-operatively with the unions representing workers; a reduction in production line speeds to lower than normal to permit physical distancing; the discontinuation of multi-plant assignments for inspectors; and making routine testing for the virus available to inspectors.
Last but not least, we must recognize the dedication and bravery of CFIA inspectors, who risk their health and well-being every day when they go to work, by ensuring that they have adequate personal protective equipment, including latex gloves, N95 masks, face shields and access to a steady supply of hand sanitizer.
Thank you very much for your attention.
Thank you, Mr. Chair and committee members, for the opportunity to speak to you today.
My name is Mary Robinson. I'm part of the sixth generation of my family to farm in Prince Edward Island, and I'm also the president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. Our federation represents roughly 200,000 Canadian farm families and has been in existence since 1935.
To start, I want to say thanks and to acknowledge the work of Canadian governments at all levels. Public servants and elected officials have been working 24-7 to help Canadians and keep them safe during these difficult times.
These coming weeks and months are critical if we are to ensure Canada's domestic food supply is secure both now and into the future.
The federal government has designed and executed many programs for businesses and Canadian individuals. We are talking today about how we can bring this ingenuity and commitment to support our farmers and food businesses in their continued commitment to providing an adequate and affordable Canadian food supply. We believe the resilience, adequacy and affordability of Canada's food supply is a critical public health objective for all Canadians, second only to the direct health care response to COVID-19 itself.
The COVID-19 crisis continues to generate significant challenges and uncertainty throughout the agri-food sector, with potentially devastating impacts on farmers from coast to coast. As leaders, we have an obligation to plan for the worst and drive for the best.
To understand the impacts of COVID-19, the CFA, through a survey of members and other national commodity associations, identified $2.6 billion in projected short-term financial losses across the Canadian agri-food sector nearly two months ago.
To date, the government has announced a number of initiatives for the sector, including a series of measures intending to increase credit availability for the sector, alongside the May 5 announcement of $252 million in assistance, while committing to further funding announcements in support of the sector. While critically important to the sector, the funding relief to date falls well short of the sector's overall need, as there are a number of outstanding issues facing Canadian farmers.
Today, I will speak to these outstanding issues, shortfalls in programming and what's needed to ensure we don't see any unnecessary loss of food production during this crisis, which continues to place unprecedented stress on food supply chains around the world.
For the first time in generations, serious questions have been raised in Canada about food supply chains and our food security. Canadian farmers continue to make daily decisions with regard to their businesses and the production of Canadian agricultural products, while confronting both the immediate and the longer-term challenges COVID-19 has introduced to the sector.
These include the continued threat of processing disruptions, reducing supply chain capacity and increasing costs due to production backlogs; the temporary loss of the food service industry and its long road to recovery, which has seen a key market for many agricultural producers lost, in large part for the foreseeable future; unfilled job vacancies throughout the agri-food supply chain, further challenged by the possibility of COVID occurrences in the workforce; unprecedented market volatility; rising costs in both the farm and the food processing industries, as these essential businesses continue to put in place a number of COVID-related measures; and closure of sector-specific markets that can have devastating implications for subsectors of Canadian agriculture.
The CFA has proposed a number of specific policy measures to help address challenges faced by the sector during COVID-19. A brief will be submitted to the clerk shortly, with a detailed breakdown of these measures. Given the short time I have today, I would like to focus on three key areas.
The first is the need for enhanced business risk management coverage to ensure producers have support to overcome supply chain disruptions, address rising costs and, ultimately, manage pressures to scale back production. The CFA believes that changes to BRM programs are the most efficient, comprehensive and targeted means of assisting producers with both the immediate and the longer-term challenges posed by COVID-19, in addition to the range of broad-spectrum challenges already confronting the sector, such as closures of key international markets, increasing weather-related risks due to climate change and an overall rise in the capital requirements and costs involved in agricultural production.
Had BRM programs been operating effectively, the CFA's view is that the program would have responded to up to 75% of the $2.6 billion in projected short-term financial losses referenced earlier. However, in the absence of these improvements, we continue to see a lack of trust among producers as to the ability of these programs to respond to the challenges they're experiencing, resulting in low program enrolment and a myriad of requests for ad hoc support.
Through years of research, most of the solutions to fix the BRM suite are already known. Now it is a matter of the Government of Canada sitting down with its provincial counterparts and committing to a concrete timeline to fix these programs in concert with key stakeholders. In the absence of those timely reforms, Canadian farmers need urgent clarity on how government plans to respond to rising costs associated with producing food, uncertain access to labour and loss of critical markets for many agricultural products.
Second, in addition to the challenges directly confronting primary agriculture, there's a continued need to provide further support for food processors to mitigate the likelihood of COVID-related supply chain disruptions across the sector. While we were pleased to see the announcement of $77 million for food processors, our supply chain partners have indicated that this is inadequate, with significant food and financial losses expected to follow any future disruption.
Industry assessments of the additional costs confronting food processors greatly exceed the funding made available to date, with businesses continuing to take on sizeable investments and changes to safeguard the health and safety of their workforce. Our concern is that the smaller regional processors, further processors and grower-packer operations that are so vital to so many supply chains may lose out if demand as currently expected greatly exceeds the existing funding support available. CFA is calling for urgent additional financial support to assist these businesses in retrofitting facilities to maintain capacity and support workplace safety.
Third, where disruptions either have or will take place, CFA is calling for the timely introduction of additional funding beyond the $50-million food surplus program to ensure there is logistical support to address existing and anticipated surpluses. This support must be coupled with an immediate “buy Canadian” campaign to prevent farmers from further scaling back production due to loss of the food services industry, by highlighting the wealth and diversity of Canadian food products available through retail channels. Such a campaign would not only help respond to the loss of vital food service markets for many farmers and food businesses, but would play a vital role in educating Canadians about how food gets to their plates at a time when Canadians are already paying more attention to their food supply. This would also provide an important platform to support the promotion of greater food literacy at a time when Canadians are cooking more at home and the affordability of food is a growing concern.
We believe these measures, and those in our forthcoming brief, work hand in hand to help maintain capacity and ensure Canada's agri-food sector is doing everything it can to put food on the plates of Canadians and consumers around the world during these difficult times.
Canadian farmers take pride in the fact that every day we feed Canadians. Like most sectors of the Canadian economy, farmers have felt the tremendous pain brought about by the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis. We will always work as partners with government to make nutritious and affordable food for all Canadians.
I thank you for your time.
Good afternoon. As the least-pedigreed witness on this panel, I thank you for the opportunity to address the committee.
My name is Kim Hatcher, and I live in Canning, Nova Scotia, which is located in the Annapolis Valley, the main agricultural sector of our province.
My husband Steve and I own Canning Sauce Company, which produces hot sauces, barbecue sauces and pasta sauces. We grow the majority of the ingredients that we use, and those that we don't are sourced from other local farms as the sauces that we make use 100% local Nova Scotia-grown products.
We also have recently expanded and have obtained registered farm status, operating as Coywolf Farms, from which we grow and sell primarily greens and also a few select heirloom vegetables. Our farm expansion plans were already under way shortly before COVID-19 hit, and with a few alterations and a shuffling of priorities, we've been fortunate enough to be able to follow through with our desire to grow local food to provide to our surrounding communities.
How the virus will affect our ability to secure funding assistance to install greenhouses for year-round greens production still remains to be seen.
Overall, the impact that COVID-19 has had on our business and new farm has mostly been neutral or positive. Our sales have remained decent, with a few pantry items seeing a massive increase in popularity. We've also benefited greatly from the forethought of our local Wolfville Farmers' Market that's managed by Kelly Redcliffe, as this market has had online sales available since 2017. The online platform, WFM2Go, has a separate manager in Lindsay Clowes, and she reports that these sales have gone from 50 to 60 regular customers to well over 500 weekly orders since our pre-COVID days. This increase has required the addition of a second weekly delivery date, and those sales show no signs of slowing down.
People want to buy fresh local food. We, as a country, just need to stop making it so cheap and easy to choose not to.
While I feel like Nova Scotia, in general, has always put a fairly high value on local food and food products, the pandemic, I believe, has highlighted the problems in our food system throughout Canada. It's forced people to really consider where their food comes from, how it's grown and how it physically makes its way to them. Small and medium farms, regardless of the commodity produced, have largely struggled. This is, in part, from our products' being undervalued or prices' being undercut by megascale products that are cheaper but unsustainable in practice, quality and the stewardship of our agricultural lands.
I believe that this pandemic is providing us with a very unique opportunity to fix our broken food system and to capitalize on the momentum surrounding small and medium-sized locally based food producers. We have a chance to strengthen local food producers, which in turn strengthens the communities they're based in. It's a health and economic win-win scenario for communities all over Canada.
Creating programs that reward buying locally—like the ingredients found in the cafeteria of your local hospital, or locally sourced offerings from a school lunch program—will be instrumental. Jenny Osburn, locally, and a team of dedicated people have started such a lunch program. Pre-COVID, there were four Annapolis Valley schools on board, as well as one on the south shore. With a government subsidy to make school lunches affordable, and even with only 80% participation of the roughly 123,000 kids in the province at a buck a day, that's $100,000 worth of local food purchased per day.
While I feel that more funding is necessary for small-scale and market-sized businesses, more importantly, I see this as a massive opportunity to re-evaluate the importance that farms, particularly those using sustainable farming practices, have in our society, and to create programs that will give real life incentives to farmers, enabling them to provide their products in a long-term and sustainable way.
Six minutes from my home is TapRoot Farms. It's a family-run, medium-sized, certified organic farm that has been running a CSA, community supported agriculture, program for more than a decade. Since March, it has seen a 30% increase in membership and online sales. Again, I believe that Canadians want to buy local food, particularly when we make it the better option and support its growth rather than the cheap and easy imported option that does nothing to serve our Canadian farming communities or our Canadian consumers. Unfortunately, TapRoot Farms, like many other farms in our area, is struggling. While we are grateful for the increase in sales and awareness, the loss of such a large portion of our province's foreign workforce makes it an uncertainty as to whether this COVID-inspired increase in demand can even be met.
The Canada emergency relief benefit that I was eligible for once recipients could still be earning some small portion of their previous income will, of course, end. My husband, besides working our farm, also works full time at another local farm, and it's one of the many that are sorely understaffed due to the cut in foreign workers. Based on our expansion plans, he will need to stop that outside work once we are in full greens production.
I have thus far been unable to find a current program to assist us in bridging the gap created by fewer of our expected venues selling our products, as we are too small, or too new, or are voluntarily leaving a position in order to allow us the labour time needed to grow and sell local food in a volume that's financially sustainable for us. This is a terrifying position to be in, but one that is necessary. I'm hopeful that more funding for market-size businesses will become available. While there may be very few positives that come out of a global pandemic, I hope that support for a local and sustainable food system will be one of them.
In closing, I'd like to state that given the enormity of the pandemic and the speed at which these programs and funding opportunities need to be released, I'm very pleased with our government's response. I also greatly appreciate the daily briefings that have been clear, calm and concise, relayed to the general public without unnecessary sensationalism or dramatics.
With that in mind, I would also like to note something that may become a missed opportunity but is a much-needed confirmation of our current political landscape. My local MP is Kody Blois, Kings—Hants, and he is part of the Liberal Party of Canada. I happen to be a supporter of that party. Therefore, I am in the very fortunate position of feeling like I have a voice in Parliament and my concerns are being appropriately represented. Many Canadians have an MP who does not belong to their party of choice, and therefore, do not feel like they have a voice in Parliament. Since April I haven't stopped imagining a PSA of all the political leaders, with Zoom clips of leaders talking to each other individually in a candid and casual fashion, not pandering but complimentary: “I saw that tweet yesterday; that's great” or “I can't agree with that initiative as it is,” with the response being, “Okay, let's work on it.”
The political climate south of the border is divisive to the point of being malicious. That fear and uncertainty are making their way here. I think we would be missing an opportunity to show our country that we are a unified force against a global threat and to show the world that we are an example of how this can be done.
Thank you very much for your time.
Thank you, everybody, for being here. I'm sure you would all agree that once a farmer and/or rancher, always a farmer and/or rancher. It's part of your system. It's part of your life. We need more and more Canadians to take up that aspect of things.
I'm in Saskatchewan. Obviously, I have a lot of the agriculture aspect in my area. To help farmers deal with the effects of COVID-19, the industry requested that the waive the carbon tax fee with respect to grain drying costs after what was dubbed the “harvest from hell” due to the poor weather and excess moisture out here. We learned last week that the minister will not allow any exemption. She also stated that, at most, farmers were paying $819 per farm to dry their grain, even though APAS provided data that showed otherwise.
I personally know this to be untrue, as many of my constituents have come to me or written to me and shown me the exorbitant drying costs that some have been paying, some over $10,000, just to have their produce ready for sale.
Ms. Robinson, have you or your organization heard from farmers regarding these types of costs, compounding the issues they're already facing with COVID-19?
Through you, Mr. Chair, to answer the question, I'm sure that the producers found this extremely frustrating and extremely confusing, as we did. As the union representing the food inspectors, we're extremely frustrated with this process.
I sit as co-chair of what's called the service-wide health and safety committee. That's a health and safety committee for all of government. I spoke there, and I also sat at the National Joint Council. The Public Health Agency presented to that council, and I asked questions on these measures with regard to the non-medical masks and why in the beginning the medical masks weren't available and weren't being recommended. Even after they were, it was clear that those medical masks were not considered personal protective equipment.
To answer your question, yes, I think there was a lot of confusion out there. Our main concern—from the beginning of this—is that the Public Health Agency is providing guidance for public health, not for an industrialized environment or a workplace where you have a hazard such as COVID-19, which is newly introduced. It's the employer's responsibility to conduct a hazard assessment based on the workplace and to implement measures that are going to protect the workers, as they cannot defer to an agency such as the Public Health Agency. I think this is where the government as a whole failed, and many departments failed to do that.
That's a very good question, and obviously when you mass-produce anything, the producers can usually lower their costs.
I agree with you 100% that sometimes the quality from the smaller producers is better. I think buying locally is very important, especially after COVID-19.
How we tackle bringing those prices down, or keeping those prices down, is a very good question.
When you look at industrializing food production, like what we have done in the meat production facilities here, then you introduce the other risks that go along with that. These facilities will have up to a 1,000 people working in one plant on a shift, and if something goes wrong, such as a virus that affects people, then it's going to spread pretty rapidly.
That's going to have a negative impact on the food production in our country. We've had situations previously with the Excel beef plant, where they had a large E. coli outbreak, and that plant shut down for months. That plant was then bought by somebody else because of that.
You have to weigh the balance, I think, when it comes to producing food really cheaply and producing food that has that quality you refer to.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. Two and a half minutes isn't a long time.
Ms. Robinson, I'd like to talk about seasonal foreign workers.
Many farmers in my riding view the government's handling of the program this year as a fiasco.
On one hand, the government announced, in mid-March, that foreign workers were allowed to come to Canada, but on the other hand, it put the responsibility for their quarantine on farmers.
The government gave them $1,500, but it's not a lump sum payment. Farmers with small and medium-sized operations had to modify their facilities and fill in paperwork when they should have been out in the fields. They had to fill in paperwork justifying their costs simply to get the $1,500.
Earlier, my fellow member asked about what we should expect in the fall. Most farmers have sown half their fields. By the end of May, only half of the foreign workers had arrived.
Don't you think that's a fiasco? What should the government have done differently to prevent that from happening?
Welcome back, everyone. We are resuming meeting 28 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health. We are operating pursuant to the order of reference of May 26, 2020. The committee is resuming its briefing on the Canadian response to the outbreak of the coronavirus.
To our witnesses, before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name, except during questioning, when the questioner will indicate to whom the question is addressed. When you are ready to speak, you can click on the microphone icon to activate your mike. All comments should be addressed through the chair.
Interpretation in this video conference will work very much the way it does in a regular committee meeting. You have the choice at the bottom of your screen of floor, English or French. As you are speaking, if you plan on alternating from one language to the other, you will need also to switch the interpretation channel so that it aligns with the language you are speaking. You may want to allow for a very short pause when switching languages. When you are not speaking, your mike should be on mute.
I would like to welcome our second panel of witnesses. From the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, we have Ms. Colleen Barnes, vice-president of policy and programs, and Ms. Theresa Iuliano, vice-president of operations.
For the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, please go ahead. You have 10 minutes for a statement.
Theresa was at the point of saying that CFIA is a science-based regulatory agency and that in the face of COVID, the agency took immediate and decisive action to protect the integrity of Canada’s food supply and to protect our employees. These are the areas that we would like to address today in our remarks.
To support a stable food supply and the work of thousands of food businesses, CFIA has taken steps to maintain vital inspection services. The agency has hired 144 new inspectors and 44 veterinarians as of June 11. We've welcomed back some who recently retired, reassigned staff to priority areas and funded more overtime. This is being done to maintain capacity, and these measures enable us to continue fulfilling our mission without placing undue burden on our employees.
CFIA is also working with some provincial counterparts to train and equip provincial inspectors to provide CFIA with inspection support on a temporary, as-needed basis.
Mr. Chair, you can see how an effective response requires a collaborative approach. CFIA is monitoring and responding to the pandemic by consulting regularly with employees, unions, provincial and territorial partners, international trading partners and industry.
Whether it is on the front lines or in remote work, safeguarding the wellness of CFIA employees is a top priority. When COVID-19 outbreaks occurred in meat slaughterhouses, CFIA told these businesses they needed to put a response plan in place and provide a safe workplace for inspectors. When outbreaks occurred, we worked with local and provincial public health authorities, labour ministries, occupational health and safety experts, unions and staff to ensure that appropriate measures were in place before we resumed the inspection service.
To further protect staff, CFIA created a health self-assessment tool for inspectors, expanded leave options, and reduced face-to-face interactions between field staff and industry.
For situations in which inspectors are not able to physically distance, the agency has procured masks, face shields and other protective equipment for critical service employees.
All of this, together with risk mitigation measures put in place by industry, is producing positive results, with no new COVID cases reported among CFIA employees since early May.
Now we want to talk a little bit about our work with industry.
To ease the burden on industry and support the food supply for Canadians, CFIA has introduced temporary compliance flexibilities. The changes include suspending some CFIA compliance activities for non-food safety labelling requirements and delaying compliance activities for parts of the Safe Food for Canadians Regulations that come into force in July of this year.
Working with the provinces, we have implemented a protocol that can be used in the case of meat shortages, which would allow provincially regulated meat to cross into other provinces.
In addition, given the impacts on stakeholders that we are seeing, CFIA has delayed the timelines for all regulatory initiatives in our forward regulatory plan.
Further, CFIA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have agreed to provide a six-month extension for approved facilities to continue to export certain animal products and pet foods from one country to the other. This extension will help to maintain bilateral trade during the pandemic.
Notwithstanding this flexibility, industry remains responsible for the safety and quality of the food that it produces, imports and exports. Despite the current pandemic situation, CFIA will continue to exercise its enforcement discretion as appropriate.
For me, this evolving situation highlights the importance of continued collaboration and communication between CFIA, industry partners and stakeholders.
There is more work to come in order to stay ahead of the pandemic, to be sure. Every day, the CFIA, our partners and the industries we regulate deal with unprecedented challenges from COVID-19. It demands the best of us.
For the CFIA, we will continue to monitor the pandemic closely, rethink procedures and innovate where possible as we work with our stakeholders towards a common goal—to carry on delivering the front-line services that support our way of life in Canada.
My colleagues and I appreciate the opportunity to discuss the impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the agriculture and agri-food sector and the Government of Canada's response to date.
The current situation is stressful for agri-food operators. Our food production system has nevertheless shown strong resilience since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring the continued and reliable provision of food for Canadians.
The food sector experienced unanticipated declines in demand from some industries such as food services and spikes in demand from retailers. This created short-term challenges across the supply chain.
The government has been working with processors, producers and the provinces to rapidly assess shifting demands, share critical information and find solutions to address the impacts of COVID-19 on the agriculture and agri-food sector.
We witnessed significant stresses in the system earlier in the crisis. For example, some meat processing plants had to significantly reduce slaughter capacity or temporarily close owing to impacts of COVID-19. This presents challenges for livestock producers upstream, needing to feed animals for longer periods of time without a destination for processing.
The horticulture sector is another critical component of Canada's food system. Our food supply in fruits and vegetables is highly dependent on access to labour, trade and the timely transportation of goods. It is also vulnerable to weather, disease and insect pests, as well as access to crucial inputs such as bees for pollination.
On the health and safety side, workers in the food supply, from the field and the barn to the processing plant and beyond to retail stores, are playing an essential and critical role in securing our food supply every day.
To ensure their health and safety, food processors, among others, across the country have adopted new measures including investments in additional personal protective equipment, temperature testing of employees with scanners, and retrofitting facilities to include plexiglass shields on processing lines.
In addition, Agriculture Canada, with the help of the Public Health Agency of Canada, has developed an evergreen document bringing together existing and relevant federal public health guidance for the agriculture and agri-food sector to help the sector implement measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
The availability of a range of personal protective equipment for the food sector remains a challenge. For example, the use of masks is a common practice in meat-processing facilities to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. However, some food processors, particularly the smaller facilities, are facing challenges procuring stable supplies of PPE.
As the growing season is under way, farmers are also facing challenges accessing the PPE they need to use on a daily basis to protect themselves from hazards, such as inhaling spores when handling and caring for mushrooms, or when using crop protection products.
The Canadian and global supply of PPE is slowly growing. The government and provinces have been very active in working to increase the Canadian supply of PPE. They have developed a number of mechanisms to improve access through supply hubs and programs to support PPE purchases, which we hope will help to alleviate some of the pressures the sector is currently facing.
I would like to turn to Mr. Jurgutis to continue on our behalf.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you for welcoming me back to this committee.
I'll start with temporary foreign workers, TFWs and labour. Labour challenges have been an ongoing issue for the sector. We are continuing to look at ways to address these challenges. Attracting Canadians to certain jobs in the sector has proven difficult. Despite efforts to increase wages, with provincial and territorial recruitment campaigns and job portals, the fact remains that we rely on TFWs to fill critical jobs in the sector.
Early on in the pandemic, the Government of Canada recognized the need to ensure that TFWs could continue to safely enter Canada, and worked quickly to put in place an exemption from travel restrictions. While ESDC and IRCC are responsible for administering the TFW program, AAFC is working closely with them, and has put in place a team to assist with logistical issues and to share information. We also work closely with our provincial and territorial counterparts and employers to help get TFWs into Canada.
As of mid-June, there are close to 32,000 TFWs in Canada, with more than 21,000 of those having arrived since the travel exemptions were granted. Despite this progress, there remains a gap in the total number of TFWs, when compared to 2019, and a risk that shortfalls in labour could negatively impact harvesting capacity.
At the same time, the sector has been impacted by a number of COVID-19 outbreaks. Most recently, there have been increased reports of outbreaks on farms in Ontario and other parts of the country. We were saddened to learn about the recent deaths of two workers from Mexico. We understand Mexico's recent decision to temporarily pause the arrival of some workers to certain farms in Canada while it examines information about the outbreaks and measures being taken to protect all workers from further spread. We will work closely with the Mexican government, provincial authorities and the sector to ensure that workers can continue to arrive and stay safe while in Canada.
Testing and inspections are key elements to identify origins of outbreaks, protect workers and prevent future outbreaks. Provinces are taking action by engaging with provincial public health agencies and increasing the frequency of inspections. Ensuring the health and safety of all workers, whether they are domestic or foreign, is a top priority.
In response to the immense pressure being placed on Canadian agri-businesses and producers, the Government of Canada has created several initiatives to support the sector. For example, the Government of Canada announced a $77.5-million emergency processing fund to help producers and processors.
Measures have been put in place to fund up to 700 new positions for youth in the agriculture industry through the youth employment and skills program. A total of $50 million was allocated for the mandatory isolation support for temporary foreign workers program. An additional $5 billion in lending capacity was made available through Farm Credit Canada. An investment of $100 million was made to improve access to food for Canadians under the local food infrastructure fund. A total of $50 million was also earmarked for the surplus food rescue program, and the list goes on.
The sector will continue to face challenges, which are expected to continue over the medium term. We have also seen farmers, processors and retailers adapt to help put new protocols in place, respect new rules and regulations, and find new ways to continue to ensure a supply of safe food for Canadians.
The health and safety of agriculture and agri-food producers, processors and manufacturers, as well as the safety of all Canadians, remains a priority as we continue to explore new ways to adapt.
My next question is for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
I'm sure they're aware of the 's comment that due to the carbon tax, the approximate maximum cost per farm for grain drying is $819, with some places being as low as $210. She said that, because of this, farmers do not deserve a cost exemption in the midst of this global pandemic.
Todd Lewis, the chair of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, APAS, has stated, with respect to the minister's statement, that the numbers don’t make sense to him, as some of his farmers are spending upwards of $10,000 in carbon tax on grain drying. I can vouch for that, because many of my constituents have also shown me bills of that immense amount.
Department officials have stated that the numbers quoted by the “come from submissions from a number of groups”, one of which was APAS.
Can you tell us why there's such a huge discrepancy between what the said and what our farmers are saying?
Thank you for your question, Mr. Desilets.
We have been working closely with farmers, especially vegetable growers, to monitor their seeding progress in recent weeks. What we've observed so far is that very specific areas of production in very specific regions haven't been able to seed as much as they would've liked. That is especially true for asparagus farmers in Quebec and Ontario. Not to mention, Ontario, mainly, has seen a significant decline in mushroom production.
Predicting where things will be in the fall is challenging. That's why we are keeping up our efforts to bring in as many foreign workers as possible, as Mr. Jurgutis mentioned. We are also maintaining hiring programs such as Canada summer jobs for young people, to make sure vegetable growers will have enough workers for the fall harvest.
Allow me to round out, if I may, what Mr. Jurgutis said regarding Mexico. It's important to keep in mind that, while the Mexican government does play a role in the application process, our embassy in Mexico City is still processing, as quickly as it can, the visa applications of temporary foreign workers looking to come to Canada.
Thank you very much, Chair.
My first question will be for Ms. Barnes of the CFIA.
You're aware that the Agriculture Union appeared earlier during this committee meeting. Mr. Murphy made a clear request for some national standards.
You have also alluded to the fact that in terms of your employees and issues like personal protective equipment and so on, you were very reliant on individual public health units. I suppose this explains some of the lack of consistency in terms of some of the advice that was being given within each of...well, we'll say the meat packing plants or the processing plants.
Would you not find it preferable to have clearer national standards in terms of public health practice?
Just so you know, during this committee over the last many months, there has been a call for clearer national public health standards.
Could you speak to that a little bit? Certainly from the union perspective, this lack of consistency resulted in different outcomes in the plants themselves.
I'm sure, given your concern for your employees, that you would also be somewhat in favour of something clearer across the country.
Temporary foreign workers are essential to our farmers. Mr. Seppey, you mentioned areas of production that have faced serious challenges, namely, asparagus and mushroom production.
In addition to being on thin ice because of this unprecedented pandemic, like everyone else, farmers in my riding weren't given timely information that would have informed their decision-making around production capacity.
My fellow member Mr. Powlowski wants to close the farm to fork gap, but doing that means people have to want to produce something.
Mistakes were made, and we are here to find solutions. Would you now agree that the $1,500 should have been a lump sum, because it didn't incentivize people to engage in food processing?
Some of the witnesses we heard from said the government should have been responsible for the quarantining of workers. I imagine you agree with that. What else needs to happen to ensure that farmers, be it before, during or after a second wave, receive timely information and can actually get down to the business of farming, so we don't have a food supply problem?