Charlebois: Fragile food supply chain will be further hurt by trucker vaccine mandate

Ottawa pushed ahead today with its plan to require all truckers entering from the United States to show proof of vaccination.

Vaccines are the most effective way to reduce risks, stop the spread of the virus, and save lives. No doubt.

But the situation affecting the trucking industry can potentially be challenging and could impact food access for Canadians.

This is the first public health measure that could disrupt trade between Canada and the United States since the start of the pandemic.

According to the Canadian Trucking Alliance, about 16,000 drivers could be forced off the road. Ottawa believes only 8,000 drivers will be impacted, not 16,000. Still, we need these drivers right now, more than ever, and many of them transport food products across the border every single day.

If a driver crosses the border into Canada without being vaccinated, they will need to quarantine for 14 days.

RESTAURANTS AND DINNER TABLES' COST

Canada imports about $21 billion worth of agri-food products from the United States every year, and about 60 to 70 per cent of the food imported arrives on wheels.

That’s almost 20 per cent of the food Canadians buy in both foodservice and retail.

And the timing is not great either.

Much of the volume comes through during the winter months, when produce from the southern states offers welcome supplies to Canadian consumers.

Stopping some of that business could exacerbate the driver shortage the industry is already experiencing and could drive up retail prices even further in weeks to come.

"NOT THE MOST ATTRACTIVE SECTOR"

The industry is already short around 18,000 drivers, and given the average age in the trucking industry, the vaccine mandate could get many truckers to just simply retire and exit the industry altogether.

Long-distance truck driving is not the most attractive sector we have in our economy. Unlike other industries, trucking works independently most of the time.

The average trucker will spend more than 250 nights away from their home every year. Compared to other essential workers, contact with other people is reduced. A vaccine mandate might not help extensively in this case.

Since the start of the pandemic, granting exceptions to certain groups deemed an essential service has been controversial.

Most Canadians are dead against it and the Trudeau government knows it. It has implemented a strict inoculation policy for civil servants and federally regulated workers since the start of the pandemic, and Omicron has only motivated the government to stick with its resolve on vaccine mandates.

But border access can potentially become a food security issue for Canadians.

Quebec recently backed down from its vaccine mandate for health-care workers, concerned such a measure would put even more strain on the province’s already frail health-care system.

The province followed this by asking workers to comply with strict new protocols to reduce risks in hospitals and health centres.

For truckers, something can be done.

Vaccines are by far the best weapon of choice to end the pandemic, but we also need to appreciate the fact that not all of us are believers.

About 10 to 15 per cent of people in any given field continues to resist getting them and will likely never change their minds.

We have learned that the effectiveness of vaccine mandates to convince is constrained. We have wrestled with this for more than a year now and most of us will likely need to get vaccinated more than once a year for an indeterminable amount of time.

What it means to be “fully vaccinated” this year might not be the same as next year, and truckers know that.

This is our inoculation new normal, if you will.

The vaccine mandate for truckers was decided when Omicron was not around. This new variant is incredibly contagious and spreads like wildfire.

Omicron is already disrupting the entire food chain in Canada. Absenteeism rates are at least 15 to 20 per cent in food retail, and processing is seeing similar numbers. In fact, one plant, Exceldor in Quebec, was forced to euthanize chickens in recent weeks due to low staff numbers. Many workers are either sick or were exposed to someone who was sick.

Omicron is hitting the entire economy hard and fast, so we should all be concerned about Canada’s food access.

OMICRON'S AFFECT ON SUPPLY CHAIN

From a food supply chain perspective, Omicron is a game-changer.

The supply chain is quite fragile right now, more than it’s ever been since the start of the pandemic.

Many who have contracted COVID have been fully vaccinated, but in most cases, thankfully, symptoms were mild.

Still, asking food and logistics companies to follow strict protocols has dramatically slowed things down.

A lot of the food reaching stores in Canada is either spoiled, or not as fresh as it used to be, and Canadians are noticing.

Public health measures need to adapt so the food industry can continue to provide Canadians with safe, affordable food for the next few months as we try to cope with Omicron’s wrath.

Food inflation is already a challenge in Canada, and the vaccine mandate affecting truckers could make things worse, especially for families with fewer means.

We need to be careful with vaccine mandates that could impact the effectiveness of our food supply chain.

Some measures are worth second-guessing. Cancelling hockey tournaments and other events is one thing, but potentially compromising the fluidity of our food supply chain is very different.

Stakes are much, much higher.

We really need to strike a functional balance between saving lives and keeping Canadians fed.

  • Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is the senior director of the agri-food analytics lab at Dalhousie University. 

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