Fresh Food

Greenhouse Operation Sees First Mass Coronavirus Outbreak

Does this signal the next kink in the supply chain?
Sunset Tomatoes
Photograph courtesy of Sunset/Mastronardi

In recent weeks, some of the country’s largest meat facilities have faced plant closures and projections of massive supply chain disruptions due to coronavirus outbreaks. But now it’s a greenhouse operation in Madison County, N.Y., in which half of the workers have tested positive for COVID-19, that is making headlines and raising questions about the stability of the entire food supply chain.

Some 139 workers at the Sunset/Mastronardi-operated Green Empire Farms greenhouse facility, which grows strawberries, tomatoes and cucumbers in Oneida, N.Y., have now tested positive for the coronavirus, making it central New York’s largest hot spot for the virus.

Earlier this week, Kingsville, Ontario-based Sunset/Mastronardi Produce introduced its Sunset SHIELD program to help its employees remember critical steps in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

SHIELD stands for social distancing; health (if a worker is sick, they must stay home); individual protection (use personal protection equipment); engage remotely (use technology to communicate virtually); look (read and obey all posted signs); and deep clean.

But the company said heightened safety and sanitation measures have been in place since early March.

“Our first priority is ensuring the health and safety of our workers,”said a Sunset spokesperson, adding that the company has been working closely with the Madison County government, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health departments to conduct daily worker health and temperature checks, supply face coverings and protective shields, increase cleaning and sanitizing and stagger shifts and break times.

Social distancing, the spokesperson said, has been easy to implement at the greenhouse. “The facility is bigger than 50 football fields, averaging five workers per acre. Our workers are spread out, and the facility is a pristinely clean environment during normal circumstances [before the elevated cleaning and sanitation efforts implemented during COVID-19],” the spokesperson added. “Coronavirus is not likely being spread through the greenhouse.”

Rather it was likely spread through person-to-person contact at the hotel the workers are staying at nearby, reported the Madison County health director.

Like many greenhouse and field operations, Sunset uses a third-party contractor to provide housing and transportation to its contract workers.

“Typically, with large-scale greenhouses, the workers are H-2A [or temporary workers],” explained an executive in the greenhouse industry, who asked for anonymity. “They usually live off-site, but sometimes they live in bunk houses on-site. If they’re living off-site, they’re being bussed to and from facilities.” In either scenario, the workers are living and commuting in extremely close quarters.

“What happened with Green Empire Farms may or may not be an anomaly,” the executive continued. “Coronavirus is so contagious. It can attack anybody, and it exhibits in a variety of different forms, as we’ve seen from so many people being asymptomatic.”

“All of our workers who were tested in this latest round were asymptomatic,” the Sunset spokesperson affirmed, adding that testing was and is being conducted proactively. “We’re concerned for the industry as well. It’s happened with us, but it’s possible that everyone will experience this.”

With North American beef production down more than 35% than average since the coronavirus pandemic spurred meat facility closures and reduced production capacities, supermarkets and club stores have imposed shopper buying limits, Wendy’s has removed meat patties from many of its menus, and the food industry is fearful that consumers could once again encounter the empty shelves in the butcher case that were so prevalent in March.

Will the produce industry succumb to supply shortages in the same manner as meat? “I don’t think we can know that,” said the Sunset spokesperson. “I’m not aware of intentions to shut down. We have maintained production, and don’t anticipate supply will be affected.”

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