As the spread of the coronavirus forces closures of major meat processing facilities around the country, concerns about worker safety and the nation’s meat supply have the industry doubling down on precautions.
On Monday, JBS — the U.S. subsidiary of the world’s largest processor of fresh beef and pork — announced it would be indefinitely closing its pork production plant in Worthington, Minnesota. The facility is the third JBS plant to suspend operations following a surge in coronavirus cases, following the closure of their beef facility in Colorado last week and another in Pennsylvania, which has since reopened.
Additionally, other major meat processors including Tyson Foods have fallen victim to the coronavirus. Tyson’s pork processing plant in Iowa is partially reopening this week after an outbreak of its own, which resulted in two employee deaths and 148 positive cases of the virus. Others throughout the country remain closed.
These recent closures have put a spotlight on the nation’s food supply chain. Without the processing plants, animals raised for food have nowhere to go and the protein aisle at the grocery store would struggle to keep up with demand.
The Foster Farms facility in Turlock provides the region with one of the leanest, most affordable forms of protein there is — an important addition to most families’ grocery shopping lists, Foster Farms Vice President of Communications Ira Brill said. In order to protect its workers and ensure their customers can continue buying chicken and turkey, the company has implemented measures to keep its own plant from experiencing a coronavirus outbreak.
“From the very beginning, we’ve been very proactive in terms of trying to put in place every measure of protection available to our workforce,” Brill said. “We’re very thankful for what they’ve been doing, their contributions and their commitment. They’re the ones really allowing us to put food on the table.”
Of Stanislaus County’s 236 positive coronavirus cases, none have been employees of Foster Farms, Brill said. Similar large-scale operations in the Central Valley have seen outbreaks, affecting Turlock residents who work at the companies. In Tracy, the Amazon distribution center recently reported its first positive case, and a Turlock man passed away after contracting COVID-19 from the Safeway distribution center in the same city.
At Foster Farms, Brill said employees’ temperatures are taken before they enter the facility and they are also routinely screened for coughing or shortness of breath. The company has also increased the square footage of their break areas in order to allow for social distancing, installing plexiglass partitions at break tables to provide additional protection. Partitions have also been installed inside the facility’s workspace to separate employees, and starting Thursday all workers will be required to wear masks.
Standard operating procedures already require the plant to be sanitized daily, Brill added, and the company has increased its already-existent personal hygiene standards.
“It’s very important for us to protect people who are putting in the hours,” Brill said. “If you were in a situation where all of a sudden the supply is diminished, there'd be a lot of people who are missing out because this is an essential part of their diet.”
U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue last Thursday assured the country that while food processing has been affected, the nation’s food supply is “safe.”
“Are we processing as much as we did? No, but we don’t have the demand from institutional settings like restaurants and other congregate feeding that we had as well, so the demand is down from that side, but the supply is down somewhat but adequate for our people at grocery stores and retail establishments,” Perdue told Fox Business.
Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed an Executive Order providing protections for those who work in the food industry. Large employers in the food sector industry impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic can now provide employees with up to two weeks of paid sick leave, filling a gap left by federal relief that had provided similar paid leave benefits for employers with fewer than 500 workers.
Additionally, the Executive Order provides health and safety standards to increase worker and customer protection by permitting workers at food facilities to wash their hands every 30 minutes, or as needed, to increase proper sanitation measures.
“These workers on the front lines of this crisis are our unsung heroes for continuing to work to ensure that Californians have food on their tables during these challenging times, and we must do everything in our power to make sure they are taken care of at home and in the workplace. Making sure they have paid sick leave and added protections in their place of work is critical,” Newsom said.
Should a Foster Farms employee contract COVID-19, all Centers for Disease Control and USDA guidelines will be followed, Brill said, including a quarantine of any other workers who may have been exposed to the illness.
“We have to put food on people’s tables, and we want these plants to stay open,” Brill said. “As long as we can do the job and keep the workers safe, then we’re going to work and continue to do the job.”