Major Meat Processors Shutting Down Plants as Employees Fall Ill

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Tyson Foods

Major meat plants are temporarily halting operations as employees fall victim to the novel coronavirus, with Tyson suspending operations at its pork plant in Iowa this week.

Tyson shut down its pork plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, after over 24 employees contracted the coronavirus. Similarly, JBS USA has temporarily closed its beef plant in Souderton, Pennsylvania, after employees experienced flu-like symptoms.

Employees falling ill at meat processing plants appears to be an emerging issue. On, Thursday, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), confirmed that two employees of the Tyson Foods plant in Camilla, Georgia, died after testing positive for the coronavirus. Concerned workers say they remain at risk, with the union citing a lack of protective equipment for employees.

Per CBS 46:

The union also says workers debone chickens, sometimes as many as 80 per minute, with no access to masks or protective equipment. The union also says the plant in Camilla isn’t the only one affected. Other Tyson factories in the South have also complained about the lack of personal protective equipment.

Tyson Foods’ External Communications person, Worth Sparkman, said in a statement that the company is “working diligently to protect our team members at Camilla and elsewhere against what many industries around the world have learned is a challenging and ever-changing situation.”

Per the statement:

We continue working diligently to protect our team members at Camilla and elsewhere against what many industries around the world have learned is a challenging and ever-changing situation. We were one of the first food companies to start taking worker temperatures before they enter our facilities. We also stepped up deep cleaning in our plants and implemented social distancing measures, such as installing dividers between workstations and increasing the space between workers on the production floor by slowing production lines. Workers at Camilla and other locations have access to protective face coverings, which we were actively sourcing before the CDC released its recent guidance advising that individuals wear facial coverings, and we’re aggressively securing more from sources around the world. We’ve been in frequent contact with the RWDSU and the UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers Union) about the measures we’ve taken to protect our team members.

CNN reported that “consumers are unlikely to see any shortages” as companies, like Tyson, are diverting product to functioning plants that remain unaffected by the virus for the time being.

Christine McCracken, a senior analyst of animal protein for Rabobank, told CNN that she does not forsee “any real shortages for the consumer.”

The United States has a large enough meat inventory to prevent shortages for consumers, explained Christine McCracken, senior analyst of animal protein for Rabobank. Processors that were previously servicing restaurants or cafes have started to sell to retailers. And some restaurants are selling groceries, including meat, directly to customers.

“Retail is full,” said McCracken. “I don’t anticipate any real shortages for the consumer.”

The closures mark “a very small fraction of the overall slaughter,” in the United States, she added.

“At this point there’s really no reason to think that there’d be any major disruptions,” she said.

This will, however, become a greater issue if employees at multiple plants begin to fall ill simultaneously, leading to the shutdown of additional plants, which could pose a major problem to producers:

Producers would “suddenly have nowhere to go,” she said. If local outbreaks mean closures of a number of regional plants, producers used to selling their products locally could run out of options. For those producers, “it is a crisis.”

“The smart money would say that it will be an issue at more plants, we just hope they don’t all overlap at the same time,” McCracken said. “If it expands to more plants it becomes a serious issue.”

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