As the nation’s food industry is inundated with coronavirus (COVID-19) cases, President Donald Trump’s administration is considering providing testing to U.S. food processing plants in an effort to calm fears and keep the food supply running smoothly.
Below are some of the industry-related instances of COVID-19 affecting meat and poultry plants and their teams.
A Pennsylvania-based Cargill meat plant, which employs about 900 workers, has temporarily closed. While there are rumors—both amongst employees at the Humboldt Industrial Park location and throughout town—that some Cargill workers have tested positive for the virus, the company has not confirmed that. Multiple employees and family members spoke to a local newspaper about either having COVID-19 or knowing someone at the plant who does, but they all spoke under the condition of anonymity. The plant is expected to reopen as soon as it is safe to do so. Despite its closure, the plant is still providing case-ready, packaged meat products available for sale at local supermarkets.
JBS USA in Greeley, CO, has more than 30 employees that have tested positive for COVID-19, says the local health department. One 78-year-old worker, who was employed by JBS for over 30 years, passed away due to complications from the virus. Still, the beef plant is open and operating. Kim Cordova, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, said that a doctor’s note is required for JBS plant workers in order to qualify for time off. The plant is reportedly taking temperatures of workers upon entry and the plant is kept clean with the help of 15 new cleaning crew workers. JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett told a local news station that, because JBS is an essential business, the plant remaining open is “for the good of the nation.”
In a conference call earlier this month, Sanderson Farms chairman and CEO Joe Sanderson, Jr. confirmed that 15 employees have tested positive for coronavirus. During that call, which was held on April 2nd, he also said that 36 additional employees were awaiting test results. That call also revealed that, as of April 1st, 204 employees were quarantined at home after exhibiting symptoms of illness and 152 employees had recovered and returned to work.
A Sioux Falls, SD, Smithfield Foods plant has closed after more than 80 employees tested positive for COVID-19. However, the local union that represents Smithfield’s workers says that the number of infections has actually surpassed 120. The pork plant is now closed for cleaning and sanitizing and to install physical barriers to enhance social distancing once workers return. The plant employs about 3,700 workers.
In a scathing letter condemning the poultry industry for it’s slow response to COVID-19, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) announced the deaths of two Tyson Foods plant employees in south Georgia. The letter states that workers debone chickens with no access to masks, however, members of upper management who oversee production do wear protective gear.
On April 6th, Tyson released its own statement regarding measures the company is putting in place to combat COVID-19. Those efforts include social distancing with the help of dividers between work stations on the production floor. Some locations also now have tents to create outdoor break rooms. The statement also acknowledged the closure of an Iowa pork plant where more than 24 employees have contracted COVID-19.
Please stay tuned for updates regarding the Trump administration's plans to provide testing to food processing plant workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.