(Adds Alberta health officials, Canadian agriculture minister)
April 20 (Reuters) - Cargill Ltd said on Monday it had begun the process of temporarily idling its Canadian beef plant in High River, Alberta, because of the COVID-19 outbreak as provincial health officials said hundreds of workers at the plant had become infected.
In her daily media update, Alberta Chief Medical Officer Deena Hinshaw said a total of 484 cases of the coronavirus in the province were tied to the Cargill plant, including 360 workers. One worker at the plant has died.
Earlier on Monday, the Canadian arm of the U.S. agribusiness Cargill Ltd said in a statement the entire High River beef plant would be idled once it had finished processing the protein already on site. The company gave no timeline for when operations would resume and said it was encouraging all staff to get tested for the novel coronavirus as soon as possible.
“Effective today, we have begun the process to temporarily idle Cargill’s High River facility,” the statement read. “Considering the community-wide impacts of the virus, we encourage all employees to get tested for the COVID-19 virus as now advised by Alberta Health Services as soon as possible.”
The Cargill beef plant, which produces patties for McDonald’s Corp, represents about 36% of total Canadian processing capacity, according to industry data.
Earlier this month, Cargill reduced production at its High River plant after several dozen workers became infected with the new coronavirus.
Hinshaw told reporters a team of provincial health officials was working to slow the outbreak at the Cargill plant, including working with households who do not have the resources or the space to self-isolate.
More cases tied to the Cargill plant were expected to be identified in the coming days, she said, adding that workers carpooling to the plant had been identified as a risk.
An additional 67 cases of COVID-19, the respiratory virus caused by the novel coronavirus, had been linked to the JBS Food Canada beef plant in nearby Brooks, Alberta, Hinshaw said.
Canadian and provincial officials have said agriculture is an essential industry as they grapple with a coronavirus outbreak that has infected 35,392 Canadians and caused 1,611 deaths.
In a statement, Canadian Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said federal and provincial officials were “examining all options to protect workers, support our farmers and processors and keep high-quality and affordable meat products available to Canadians.” (Reporting by Kelsey Johnson in Ottawa; Editing by Chris Reese and Peter Cooney)
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