Over Canada Day weekend, 250 workers at the Agropur dairy in Granby went on strike due to a disagreement over shift scheduling. Truckers who had transported raw milk to the plant, which usually makes cheese, suddenly had nowhere to put it. An estimated two million litres of milk had to be thrown away.
The plant normally processes about 10 per cent of the milk produced in Quebec. As the labour dispute grinds on, no further milk has gone to waste, according to Yannick Grégoire, deputy director of public affairs, communications and union affairs for Les Producteurs du Lait du Québec, the association which represents the province’s 12,000 milk producers. The excess milk has been sent to other processing plants in Quebec and Ontario, to food banks as pasteurized milk, and to animal feed producers. However, the dumping incident, the second in three years, has raised concerns about the way the milk supply chain functions.
“The situation is precarious and no one wants to see waste…but everything is always very tense,” said Grégoire. In the event of a labour dispute or an equipment or transportation failure, Gregoire said, “farmers can keep the milk for two days on the farm, but then it will expire. The system is very fragile.” If other plants are at capacity and there’s nowhere else for the milk to go, he said, waste becomes inevitable.
In the short term, Grégoire hopes the union representing the workers, the CSD-Construction, and Agropur can come to an agreement to allow the plant to process a minimal quantity of milk. In the long term, he said he thinks it may be necessary to use federal and provincial funding to build an “emergency plant” to compensate for disruptions at other plants.
Bernard Cournoyer is a union representative at the CSD- Construction, which represents the 250 striking workers. He called the dumping incident “shameful.”
“The employer stops the plant for six days at a time for scheduled maintenance, and they redirect the milk – they don’t throw it away,” he said. “This time, they got stuck at the last minute because they didn’t take us seriously.”
Cournoyer said that getting the plant back online in the short term would necessarily involve Agropur walking back plans to change workers’ schedules, plans he said would “ruin [the employees’] family lives” by imposing 12-hour shifts and start times that could change from one day to the next. “As soon as they walk back the scheduling changes, we’ll vote right away [on a new collective agreement] and go back to making cheese,” he said.
As for a long-term solution to prevent waste, Cournoyer said he believed the idea of a backup plant was too costly, and did not incentivize Agropur to “improve their working relationship” with unionized staff. He floated the idea of a strategic stockpile along the lines of the federal maple syrup reserve. “When there’s a surplus of syrup, they don’t throw it on the ground,” he said.
Mylène Dupéré, vice president of corporate communications for Agropur, said scaling up the capacity of existing plants was part of the company’s plan to prevent waste. She would not comment on the ongoing negotiations with the union.
In the days after the dumping incident, nearly 50,000 litres of milk that would otherwise have been made into cheese at the Granby plant were sent to Les Banques alimentaires du Québec, the provincewide food bank network. “Demand for milk is higher than ever, and we definitely have the capacity [to store and distribute] the milk,” said Martin Munger, director general of the food bank network. Munger said demand for food aid was more than double what it was in 2019, in light of inflation and the ripple effects of the pandemic.
“Nobody likes food waste in a context of food insecurity…but food systems are complex and sometimes there are bugs,” he conceded.
Milk production is an area of provincial jurisdiction. Quebec’s ministry of agriculture did not respond to a request for comment on the strike and associated supply chain issues at press time. A spokesperson for federal agriculture and agri-food minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said the situation was being “closely monitored” by the federal government.