By Nikoel Hytrek, courtesy of Iowa Starting Line
Across the Midwest, a new problem is emerging that affects not only life here, but supply chains for the whole country.
Increasingly, workers at meatpacking plants in states like Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota are testing positive for the coronavirus, forcing some plants to close or suspend operations. Others are keeping their doors open, despite positive cases, putting workers in the position to choose between their health and their jobs.
Today, National Beef announced its Iowa Premium plant in Tama, Iowa will suspend operations until April 20 after several employees contracted COVID-19 or showed flu-like symptoms.
A week ago, Tyson Foods suspended its pork plant in Columbus Junction after more than two dozen employees tested positive for the coronavirus. Despite the furlough, the plant’s 1,400 employees were paid for the week. There haven’t been updates on whether the plant will remain closed.
There are also rumors that the coronavirus has been detected at the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Perry, though management there neither confirmed or denied the claim.
Meat packing has been deemed an essential service, which means workers, who are often immigrants and refugees, must make the decision to risk going to work or sacrifice a paycheck.
In many plants, the companies have taken to sanitizing and disinfecting daily, taking workers’ temperatures, encouraging social distancing and use of masks.
Neighboring states are facing the same situation.
The JBS USA beef plant in Grand Island, Nebraska had 28 workers test positive for the coronavirus. The plant is Grand Island’s largest employer.
“Social distancing isn’t easy at plants where employees often stand nearly shoulder to shoulder on the production line, slaughtering and cutting chickens, pigs or cattle, or handling frozen or packaged foods. And when the virus gets inside a facility, it can spread quickly, threatening workers and food operations,” the Omaha World-Herald reported.
A JBS USA plant in Greeley, Colorado announced it would close through Tuesday for deep cleaning and health screenings for workers. Dozens of workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and last week, before this announcement, workers didn’t report for their shifts.
In South Dakota, the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls is closing until further notice because hundreds of employees tested positive. It’s one of the largest meat packing plants in the entire country, producing around 18 million servings of food a day. The plant employs about 3,700 people in Sioux Falls and, according to health officials, as of this weekend, about 40 percent of all of South Dakota’s coronavirus cases came from employees at the plant.
“As a critical infrastructure employer for the nation’s food supply chain and a major employer in Sioux Falls, it is crucial that Smithfield have a healthy workforce to ensure the continuity of operations to feed the nation. At the same time, employees need a healthy work environment,” [South Dakota Gov. Kristi] Noem and [Sioux Falls Mayor Paul] TenHaken wrote to the plant’s operators.
There is no research to indicate that the coronavirus can spread through food.