Focus grows on food processing plants amid new closings

The focus on food processing plants as coronavirus hot spots is increasing after another plant closed Sunday.

A JBS beef production facility temporarily closed after it was the center of a coronavirus outbreak in Green Bay, Wis. The plant had 189 workers test positive out of the 1,200 people the facility employs. 

The number of overall coronavirus cases in Wisconsin grew by 224 on Sunday, marking the fifth day in a row the state’s new cases reached more than 200, USA Today reported.

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This facility is the fourth JBS plant to close during the coronavirus pandemic, following a Minnesota pork facility and two beef production facilities — one in Pennsylvania and one in Colorado — that have since reopened.

Other companies have also regularly had to close processing plants due to outbreaks.

Tyson Foods closed a pork processing plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, after two people died and at least 148 workers tested positive, as well as a pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, because too many workers have been absent. 

Smithfield has closed three pork processing plants in Missouri, Wisconsin and South Dakota, where one employee died and 518 employees are infected. The company said the Missouri and Wisconsin plants each had a small number of employees who tested positive.

The increasing number of plant closures is underscoring threats to the U.S. food supply. The closed JBS plant in Green Bay feeds nearly 3.2 million Americans every day, according to the company.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been facing growing pressure to ensure the safety of the food supply and Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueThe looming USDA deadline to guarantee access to school meals Trump: food chain 'almost working perfectly again' Tyson poultry plant remains closed past USDA head's reopening goal MORE stressed earlier this month that the supply chain is safe and resilient. 

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Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowThe 10 Senate seats most likely to flip Bipartisan senators introduce bill to make changes to the Paycheck Protection Program Democrats press USDA on worker safety at meat processing plants MORE (D-Mich.) and 35 other Democratic senators wrote to Perdue and other officials last week urging the Trump administration to act to protect the food supply and essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Experts predict the pattern will continue due to the nature of the work at food processing plants.

“I expect that more plants will continue to become hot spots and close because it’s so difficult to social distance in meat and poultry plants. Many workers in meat and poultry plants, for various reasons, can’t take sick days if they have been exposed or are having symptoms. So, they end up going to work, and with no ability to social distance, infections can spread,” said Mary Muth, a program director and research economist at RTI International, a nonprofit research institute.

Food processing, especially meat processing, requires workers to be in close proximity to one another, noted Donald Schaffner, a professor of food microbiology at Rutgers University.

“It’s also very labor-intensive work, so these guys, and it is mostly guys, are breathing pretty heavy. This means if they are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic they are shedding the virus, so it’s spreading to other workers in the plants,” Schaffner said.

This issue is not one that the federal government can solve, Schaffner noted, because plants make their own decisions to close. Companies are also incentivized to keep plants open for their own financial health.

“If they’re shut down because they have too many workers out sick, they’re not making money. I think there’s a very clear financial incentive for them to figure out what to do,” he said.

Some food processing plants have remained open despite virus outbreaks, including a Tyson Foods’s poultry processing plant in Georgia where four employees died. A Wayne Farms poultry plant in Alabama had one employee die and 75 workers test positive.

Workers and lawmakers are calling for improved working conditions to prevent further outbreaks. Experts also suggest the focus should be on increased protective measures for workers.

“[C]hanges in sick leave policies for plant workers, ensuring all workers have adequate PPE, and slowing down the production lines to allow workers to have more physical space between them all would likely help,” Muth said, referring to personal protective equipment (PPE).

Smithfield Foods is being sued over allegations that it failed to protect workers in a Missouri plant by forcing them to work “shoulder to shoulder” and providing inadequate PPE.

The lawsuit also claims the company didn’t give workers time to wash their hands and disciplined them for covering their mouths while coughing or sneezing because they could miss meat on the processing line. Smithfield said the claims were unfounded.

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“We have worker safety regulations, but they are ignored and not enforced. Let’s start with using the laws we have. The USDA has allowed meat plants to increase line speeds past the danger point. The plants are crowded. Workers are treated terribly,” said Marion Nestle, professor of food studies at New York University.

JBS said it has adopted safety measures during the coronavirus pandemic like temperature tests, providing PPE, promoting physical distancing and increasing sanitation, among other efforts.

“JBS USA is striving to provide the safest working environment possible for its team members who are providing food for the nation during these unprecedented times. The company’s efforts to combat coronavirus continue to evolve as new information from medical experts becomes available,” the company said in a statement on Sunday.