Fresh Food

For Meat’s Sake: Keeping Processing Plants Open

Processing facilities have become a hotbed of COVID-19 cases
Perdue
Photograph courtesy of Perdue

A day after Tyson Fresh Meats announced that it was reopening its Columbus Junction, Iowa, plant after closing it for two weeks due to the coronavirus, the company is indefinitely closing a different plant in Waterloo, Iowa, adding to concerns that meat supply for the nation's grocery stores could be in peril.

“Protecting our team members is our top priority and the reason we’ve implemented numerous safety measures during this challenging and unprecedented time,” said Steve Stouffer, group president of Tyson Fresh Meats, a division of Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods. “Despite our continued efforts to keep our people safe while fulfilling our critical role of feeding American families, the combination of worker absenteeism, COVID-19 cases and community concerns has resulted in our decision to stop production.”

The Waterloo plant is the company’s largest pork facility and has been running at reduced levels of production due to worker absenteeism. Its 2,800 workers will be able to get tested for COVID-19 later this week at the plant, Tyson said. (The governor of Iowa has mandated that all employees at all meat processing facilities within the state be tested with plans to conduct contact tracing for positive cases.) The Waterloo workers will continue to be compensated during the plant’s closure, and resumption of the facility’s processing will depend on a variety of factors, including the outcome of employee testing for COVID-19. 

“The closure has significant ramifications beyond our company, since the plant is part of a larger supply chain that includes hundreds of independent farmers, truckers, distributors and customers, including grocers,” Stouffer added. “It means the loss of a vital market outlet for farmers and further contributes to the disruption of the nation’s pork supply.” 

With both Tyson and Smithfield indefinitely closing pork processing plants in the country, the meat situation in grocery stores could quickly be compromised. At least 2,200 workers at 48 plants have contracted COVID-19, with 17 deaths, according to a USA Today article, and while plants have maintained sufficient operations so far, experts fear the number of cases will continue to rise and meat facilities will become the next disaster zones, similar to what the country has already seen in long-term care facilities.

The pandemic has brought to the forefront some of the conditions that the meat industry has long been dinged for with regard to worker safety and working conditions. But instead of the government cracking down, it has actually loosened standards during the pandemic, which led to the House of Representatives introducing a bill that would require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue enforceable safety standards in response to the coronavirus as well as prompting a letter to the federal government from 34 senators that said, in part:

“We write today to inquire about the actions you are taking to ensure the safety of our nation’s food supply and protect our essential federal and private sector food supply chain workforce. There have been numerous reports of essential workers in meatpacking plants, processing facilities, farms, grocery stores and markets falling ill from COVID-19. … It is vital that we do everything we can to protect food supply workers and federal employees from COVID-19 infection. Breakdowns in the food supply chain could have significant economic impacts for both consumers and agricultural producers. It is also imperative that precautions are taken to ensure the stability and safety of our food supply. During this public health crisis, the White House and your agencies must coordinate with state and local governments and the private sector to take aggressive action to protect essential workers in the food supply chain. We need bold action and creative solutions, including greatly increased testing and tracing of those exposed to the virus in order to stop the spread.”

Closing processing plants all together is not an option, because it would bring the supply chain to a standstill, and as of now, it is mostly up to the companies themselves to determine best practices and determine their own protocols

Much like their counterparts in the retail space, food processors must make up the rules as they go along.

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