Meat, Poultry Plants Close As Workers Get Sick With COVID-19

Analysis from USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting says rates of infection are soaring in and around major processing plants.
Posted at 5:09 PM, Apr 24, 2020

The coronavirus is hitting hard at America's meat and poultry processing plants. Thousands of workers are getting sick. Plants are being forced to close for sanitizing and safety.

U.S. Agriculture officials say the meat supply remains ample and is also safe. But shortages of pork, chicken, and beef could begin occurring at some grocery outlets by next month.

The coronavirus is having a major impact in — and around — large food processing facilities. A report by USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting this week said rates of infections around these plants are higher than in 75% of U.S. counties.

On Thursday, the Midwest Center reported that more than 3,400 coronavirus cases have been connected to more than 60 meat processing and packing facilities in 23 states. It said 17 workers have died. Additionally, the USDA confirmed the death of an agricultural inspector for plants in the Midwest.

Tyson Foods on Wednesday shuttered its Waterloo, Iowa, pork plant, its largest nationally, due to COVID-19 concerns. Smithfield Foods closed another major facility in South Dakota.

Tyson Foods is installing plastic sheeting between food processing workers on plant floors and mandating social distancing. But that can be difficult in such environments. 

Tyson's senior vice present Hector Gonzalez said in a video statement that the company is  "working diligently" to protect its workers. That includes taking their temperatures at the start of  shifts and trying to identify any potential virus symptoms.

"This is an ever-changing situation and we are committed to exploring every way possible for keeping our team members safe," Gonzalez said. 

A local union president at Tyson's chicken plant in Tennessee told Newsy's Nashville sister station, WTVF, of mounting concerns for worker safety as infections spike.

"Our numbers have increased and they continue to increase. It's just … Something's got to happen. We expect Tyson and we're demanding that Tyson do their part, and we have to do our part on the other end. We've got to make sure that we keep safe distancing. We've got to make sure that we wear our masks."

That Tennessee plant is now being shut down for sanitation, starting Friday night. It will remain closed through Monday.