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COVID-19 Hits Packing Plants

By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor

OMAHA (DTN) — Coronavirus cases are increasingly affecting the meatpacking industry as both a beef and pork plant in Iowa were closed this week because of positive cases.

Tyson Foods announced a pork processing plant is suspending operations at an eastern Iowa plant after 24 positive cases were tied to its workforce. National Beef also announced it was moving up a major cleaning process at the Iowa Premium Beef plant in Tama, Iowa, after a worker tested positive.

The meatpacking industry is deemed as essential by the federal government as part of the need to keep food processing going, but that also places staff and workers in constant close quarters that go against the social-distancing standards now in place around the country.

At least 13 workers at the beef packing plant for JBS SA in Grand Island, Nebraska, have tested positive. The plant employs about 3,000 people. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has agreed to boost coronavirus testing around Grand Island after talking both with local officials and JBS staff.

“We want to make sure companies are taking all the steps to protect their workers,” Ricketts said Monday. “But also recognize things like meatpacking plants are essential industries. Even in other states where they have shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders, none of these facilities are closed.”

Early in the coronavirus outbreak, leaders of the cattle and pork industries stressed that packing capacity in both industries was already tight and neither cattle nor pork producers could afford plant shutdowns.

The April live cattle contract closed at $83.83 per cwt Monday afternoon, down $4.50. The contract has lost roughly 25% of its value just since March 25. The April lean hogs contract closed slightly higher Monday at $41.13 per cwt, but the April hogs contract also has lost 39% of its value in just under two weeks.

On Monday, Tyson Foods said it was suspending pork production in Columbus Junction, Iowa, due to positive cases involving more than two dozen workers. Tyson said it was diverting swine normally processed in Columbus Junction to other pork processing plants in the region.

Tyson also said the company is taking temperatures of all workers at processing plants before they enter company facilities. The company also has “stepped up deep cleaning and sanitizing our facilities, especially in employee breakrooms, locker rooms and other areas, to protect our team members,” said Noel White, Tyson Foods’ CEO.

To boost that cleaning process, White said the additional cleaning will sometimes require suspending at least one day of production.

Tyson also stated the company is emphasizing the need for personal protective gear for packing plant workers as well. The company is implementing protocols for protective face coverings for production workers.

Tyson also is exploring ways to “promote more social distancing in our plants.” That could include erecting dividers between work stations and spreading out space on the production floor. To do so, Tyson noted, would involve slowing production lines.

“While these are challenging times, we remain committed to protecting our people while continuing to meet the needs of our customers and consumers across America,” Tyson’s White said.

Tyson Foods in St. Joseph, Missouri, also had sent a memo to workers that an employee there had tested positive as well. Tyson also has announced it was giving its workers $60 million in bonuses during COVID-19.

An employee at National Beef in Tama, Iowa, (Iowa Premium Beef) tested positive on Thursday, April 2. In response, Kansas City-based National Beef announced it would move its regular plant clean up to this week. The plant’s processing is being adjusted, and National Beef is continuing to pay the 850 or so employees that work in Tama.

“These are unprecedented times for our industry; National Beef will continue to balance the responsibility we have to all our partners, including employees, suppliers and customers, while continuing to produce high-quality beef,” the company stated.

FSIS INSPECTORS CONCERNED

Federal inspectors for packing plants are also being affected. An FSIS inspector in New York City died of the virus last month, and at least four other inspectors have confirmed cases right now, though it is not known whether those inspectors contracted the virus through work or elsewhere.

Paula Schelling, acting chairwoman for the food-inspectors union in the American Federation of Government Employees, represents roughly 6,500 food-safety inspectors nationally at USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service. FSIS holds weekly town-hall meetings with inspectors as well as calls with union officials over updates.

“The inspectors are raising concerns as well as myself,” Schelling said. “At first, when this whole thing started, we said, ‘You guys at the agency, you aren’t doing enough to protect our employees.’ The comment then was, it was not a matter of if, but when.”

Initially, FSIS inspectors were told they were not allowed to wear masks on the job, but that order has since been reversed.

“Now they are allowing us to wear facemasks, but there are no facemasks to be found,” Schelling said.

FSIS has told inspectors to adhere to the guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control, but Schelling noted that is easier said than done.

“That is pretty much the story we keep hearing again and again is ‘Follow the CDC guidelines.’” There is virtually no way to keep that 6-feet distance in meatpacking plants,” Schelling said. “Is that a contributing factor for the community spread? I don’t know. I’m not that scientific based, but I do know this — we are not able to follow those guidelines.”

OTHER PACKING PLANT REPORTS

A spokesperson for JBS SA said the company has seen limited overall impact so far due to increased absenteeism at some U.S. facilities, and added, “And though a couple of our plants are operating at reduced capacity, we are meeting demand.” JBS stated absenteeism has increased in areas where COVID-19 is more prevalent.

JBS also detailed a list of preventive measures the company is taking, including more deep cleaning at facilities, taking temperatures of all staff before entering plants, finding ways to stagger shift starts and breaks, and increasing spacing in cafeterias to focus on social distances.

“We continue to implement enhanced protective measures to provide a safe working environment for our team members producing food for the country,” the spokesperson said.

Outside of Grand Island, JBS also employs 4,500 people in Greeley, Colorado, where family members reached out to the Greeley Tribune, raising concerns about the plant procedures.

The Tribune reported, “The allegations suggest employees testing positive for COVID-19 have not triggered appropriate responses inside the plant to limit further exposure and contagion.”

The paper reported that hundreds of employees walked out of a meeting last week, and workers were not officially informed about a positive case at the plant until a week late. (https://www.greeleytribune.com/…)

Pilgrim’s Pride, also owned by JBS, has confirmed workers at their operations have also tested positive in at least some of its 19 U.S. facilities.

On Friday, a Virginia television station, WHSV, reported that more than two dozen Pilgrim’s Pride workers protested at the Timberville, Virginia, plant over safety concerns after workers there had tested positive. An employee said at least eight people who worked at the plant were now quarantined. (https://www.whsv.com/…)

Smithfield Foods did not respond to emails from DTN about its operations.

Other packing plants have been affected as well, including the poultry industry, which has more COVID-19 cases hit Southeastern states.

Sanderson Farms CEO Joe Sanderson Jr., on a conference call last Thursday, said 15 employees at that time had tested positive and another 36 were waiting results, while 204 employees were under quarantine. Several workers at its Bryan, Texas, operation are also quarantined after two employees tested positive

In and around Moultrie, Georgia, both National Beef and Sanderson Farms have operations in the community of roughly 14,000 people. The county has reported 51 cases and three deaths. Sanderson Farms announced Thursday the company had directed its 415 employees in Moultrie to quarantine at home for 14 days.

Perdue Farms also closed its poultry plant in Milford, Delaware, last week after two employees tested positive. The company also has had positive cases at its operation in Perry, Georgia.

Smithfield Foods has reported that a worker tested positive at a processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. At a Patrick Cudahy plant owned by Smithfield in Cudahy, Wisconsin, at least two employees tested positive.

The local United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1473 sent a letter Friday to workers in the area that the union had been working with Smithfield to implement safety protocols. Smithfield had implemented temperature testing for workers before starting shifts, and the company was providing workers a $500 bonus.

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

(AG)

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