On April 28, 2020, President Donald Trump was poised to sign an executive order requiring meat processors to stay open, declaring that they are part of the critical infrastructure. This followed on the heels of full-page newspaper ads on Sunday, April 26, 2020, placed by Tyson Foods warning consumers that the supply chain was about to break because many processing plants had to be shut down because of COVID-19. The executive order will offer protection to companies who could generally be held responsible if they asked their workers to continue working in an unsafe work environment and without the right protective gear.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, who represents many processing plant employees, says that at least 5,000 meatpacking workers and 1,500 food processing workers have been directly affected by the coronavirus. The union also reports that 10 protein processing employees and three food processing employees have died.
At least 10 processing plants across the United States have closed at least for a short period. JBS USA Holdings, the largest processor in the US, closed its Green Bay, Wisconsin, plant after at least 189 people tested positive for the virus there. The move to close the plant, which processes enough food to feed 3 million people each day, follows the closure of other processing plants owned by the company. Five employees have died at JBS USA’s Greeley, Colorado, plant, where production stopped on April 14, 2020, after over 180 employees, tested positive for the virus. The company has since reopened the Greely plant despite urging from the employees’ union not to do so until everyone could be tested.
JBS USA has also closed its plant in Worthington, Minnesota, which is the largest pork processing facility in the United States. JBS USA says that they may reopen the plant on Wednesday, Apri 29, 2020, to euthanize hogs. Minnesota Pork Producers Association reports that there are about 20,000 hogs in the state that are caught in the supply chain with nowhere to be slaughtered and that farmers killed about 3,000 hogs last week. JBS USA has been working with the government to create plans on what to do with the euthanized animals. The plan announced on April 28th would see a few carcasses rendered at the plant while the vast majority would go to area landfills.
Tyson Foods operates the largest number of processing plants in the United States. The company has already closed three plants amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The company closed its largest plant after finally yielding to pressure put on them by local and state officials. At least 180 employees tested positive for the virus at this plant. The plant employed 2,700 people on three shifts, and workers say that they worked about two feet from another employee. Reportedly, the plant was only shut down once a day for sanitizing. The company says that they tried to stay open to keep the supply chain intact and implemented many safety measures, including using infrared technology to take workers temperatures each time they came to work.
The company also closed its Logansport, Indiana, plant on April 24, 2020, after hundreds of employees tested positive for the virus. In response to cases from the plant, Cass County officials announced tighter stay-at-home orders allowing only five customers in an essential business with less than 2,000 square feet and only letting two people shop per 1,000 square feet in larger essential businesses. Additionally, no more than 125 people would be allowed in a business at one time, and no one under the age of 16 would be allowed to enter a business. Cass County, where the plant is located, has the highest per capita infection rate in the state.
The company also closed its location in Pasco, Washington, where at least 111 workers have tested positive. Public health officials there say that they tested over 1,000 individuals at the plant, and they called it a public health nightmare because so many of the individuals who work at that plant do not speak English. In performing the tests, the health officials had people interpret their words into at least 11 different languages.
Cargill Meat Solutions Corp. is the third-largest processor in the United States. The company shuttered one of its largest facilities, which is in Alberta, Canada, after 484 cases were identified that were related to that plant.
The company also closed their Hazleton, Pennsylvania, and they refused to give a timeline when the plant would reopen, saying that the plant would reopen as soon as it was feasible to do so. The plant, which packages beef, pork, and other options for supermarkets, has over 130 workers in quarantine.
Smithfield Foods and many others have also had to stop production, further threatening the nation’s food supply.
Sysco is the nation’s largest food distributor. Most of their products go to hotel and restaurant chains. On March 18, 2020, the company put out a memo that they would begin selling only frozen protein options and produce because of the coronavirus pandemic. The company also has furloughed or laid off numerous employees, including over 10% at the company’s Houston headquarters. Small producers who often try to deal with restaurants within their local market say that they are worried because they have nowhere to send their product that is already in their facilities.
The supply at your local supermarket for your family may be slim when you go there next time unless President Trump’s orders get processing plants back into operation. Many, however, question the safety of that move as they worry about one worker infecting a whole factory or, in some cases, an entire area. Meanwhile, major food distributors like Sysco have had trouble getting rid of their fresh options and have gone to selling only frozen ones. Many small packing houses are also having trouble unloading their beef, pork, chicken, and other options because they usually sell to upscale restaurants