Cargill Inc. is temporarily closing an Ontario beef plant due to a new COVID-19 outbreak.

Local health officials on Thursday said 82 out of the 200 people it tested since first declaring the outbreak on Dec. 4 have tested positive, with 129 others now self-isolating. Cargill said this is part of a wider community-spread event in Guelph, Ontario, the town where the plant is located about an hour west of Toronto.

Despite efforts to prevent spread of the virus, North American meat processors in recent weeks have experienced a new series of outbreaks, including at pork plants in Colorado and poultry facilities in California.

Minnetonka-based Cargill and its competitors implemented new safety measures — including personal protective equipment, barriers between workers and staggered breaks to prevent congregated employees — in the spring when the coronavirus ripped through processing plants around the United States and Canada, leaving the workforce sick and unable to operate at full capacity.

This led to some limited meat shortages on grocery store shelves.

"As we continue to prioritize the health and safety of Cargill employees, we have decided to temporarily idle our Guelph protein facility. This was a difficult decision for our team who are operating an essential service and are committed to delivering food for local families and access to markets for farmers and ranchers," Jon Nash, head of Cargill's North America Protein, said in a statement.

The company began the process of idling the plant Thursday, but will finish processing the animals already on site in order to prevent wasting nearly 1.55 million meals-worth of meat.

"All outbreaks are serious. However, when we see an outbreak of this size, we must use all of the tools available to us to contain the outbreak and ensure the community at large is protected," Matthew Tenenbaum, associate medical officer for the local health authority, said in a statement.

When running at full capacity, the Guelph facility processes about 1,500 head of cattle a day. The idled portion of the plant employs about 1,000 employees. The unionized workers will receive 36 hours of pay per week, as outlined in a contract.

Kristen Leigh Painter • 612-673-4767