WINGHAM, ONT. -- Ontario beef farmers fear they may be one COVID-19 case away from disaster.

“We’re concerned if we had a worker in one of the plants test positive for COVID, that a very volatile situation would become a desperate crisis, immediately,” says Rob Lipsett, president of the Beef Farmers of Ontario.

Packing plant closures in Western Canada and in the U.S due to COVID-19 cases among workers have created a backlog of cattle across the country, driving down prices for beef farmers.

So far, there have been no major closures of beef packing plants in Eastern Canada, but it may just be a matter of time, concedes Lipsett, who raises cattle near Owen Sound, Ont.

“Any lack of labour in some of the plants, is going to cause an even more serious backlog than what we’re currently facing,” he says.

In the pork sector, plant closures due to the coronavirus have also put pressure on packing capacity.

“There are pig farmers that are having a very difficult time, right now,” says Stewart Skinner, who raises pigs near Listowel, Ont.

"It comes down to what processor and value chain you’re in. There have been disruptions in Eastern Canada especially. Quebec had a plant that has partially re-opened, after being closed for COVID for the past couple weeks. So, there is a surplus of pigs,” he says.

Both the beef and pork sectors say their goal is to continue to fill grocery store shelves with steaks and pork chops, but they don’t control the processing part of the business. So, positive COVID-19 cases in more packing plants could mean meat shortages.

“There could be a limited supply if we lose all of our processing capacity. Currently, we’re holding up alright, but I have heard reports of some grocery stores having trouble accessing beef,” says Lipsett.

Skinner says Canada’s food system is like an ocean freighter - powerful and efficient - but unable to change course quickly.

“We may need a more flexible food system. We’re working with our processors to disassemble an ocean freighter and make a fleet of speed boats. It’s possible, but it doesn’t happen overnight.”

He says there is commitment across the farming, processing, and political spectrum to keep store shelves full and people fed.