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Two large meat facilities shutdown because of too many employee COVID-19 cases

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COVID-19 has forced the closures of the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, SD, and the JBS USA beef plant in Greeley, CO.

Smithfield on Easter Sunday announced the former John Morrell plant in Sioux Falls, one of the largest pork processing facilities in the U.S., would be closed indefinitely. JBS on Monday said the Greeley beef plant would be shut down until April 24.

Smithfield and JBS were reacting to reports that their facilities in Sioux Falls and Greeley have become “hotspots” for COVID-19. The South Dakota Department of Health said 238 Smithfield employees have tested positive for COVID-19, accounting for about half the cases in Minnehaha County and 38 percent of the state’s cases.  And Colorado’s Weld County Health Department had already ordered JBS to close for four days because 43 beef plant employees are infected with COVID-19.

Further, South Dakota  Gov. Kristi Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken, wrote Smithfield on Saturday, recommending the company suspended operations for a minimum of 14 days. They suggested the facility be cleaned and employees are given time to recover from any suspected illness.

Smithfield employes 3,700 in Sioux Falls.  The company opted for an indefinite shutdown.

JBS began the weekend with plans to test all of its Greeley workforces after learning that two of its employees had died from COVID-19 related complications and 43 had tested positive for the virus.

After announcing plans to “test all of its team members at the Greeley, CO, beef production facility,” JBS erected numerous tents outside the plant in its parking lots for that purpose.

JBS is Greeley’s largest employer with 6,000 people, about 3,500 at the beef plant and the rest at its corporate headquarters.

Those testing plans, however, were canceled on Easter Sunday without giving employees who showed up any additional information. Large hand-painted signs were put up at the entrances to the beef plant’s parking lots that simply said: “Tests Cancelled.”

After leaving employees in the dark since Sunday, JBS finally announced shortly after 1 p.m. Monday that it was winding down operations at the plant and “its Greeley beef team members” should shelter in place until returning to work.

After the company’s announcement, the Weld County Health Department disclosed that on Friday, it had ordered JBS to immediately close the facility from April 10 until 5 a.m., Wednesday, April 15 over the spread of COVID-19.   The county’s decree called for completing the screening, testing, and cleaning by an April 15 re-opening. 

JBS said it will continue to pay its employees during the plant shutdown.

The Greeley beef plant is the second temporary closure announced by JBS. It first shuttered its Souderton, PA, beef production facility. The company said there’s been increased absenteeism at a few other plants, but most continue to operate “at or near capacity in an effort to continue providing food for Americans.”

JBS USA, owned by Brazil’s JBS, S.A., operates more than 60 meat, poultry and prepared food facilities across the United States.

JBS purchased $1 million worth of COVID-19 test kits, but has decided to have its Greeley employees self-quarantine until the re-opening in what it calls a “more aggressive action.” It is purchasing another 1,000 COVID-19 test kits for low-income and uninsured for local Weld County residents who do require testing.

The company is also making these additional donations:

  • $50,000 for producing masks for local residents.
  • $90,000 for the Greeley Personal isolation Facility for recovering COVID-19 Patients (frees up hospital space)
  • $100,000 for the Weld County Food Bank.

Greeley Mayor John Gates, quoted in the company statement, said JBS “is a great community partner and this assistance is vital and timely.”  Andre Nogueira, JBS USA CEO, said the Greeley beef plant “is critical to the U.S. food supply and local producers,” but said the spread of coronavirus in Weld County “requires decisive action.”

Meanwhile, Syracuse University Supply Chain Professor Rong Li said the labor shortage created by pandemic could give rise to automation in the industry. 

“ Although currently there’s no evidence of COVID-19 being transmitted through food, we will likely see other plants follow suit due to food safety concerns as well as a shortage of labor and management as more employees contract COVID-19, said the Professor.  ” Over the years, meat processors have been better equipped to deal with food safety issues that arise from the food itself. This pandemic, however, forces them to be equipped to deal with food safety issues that come from the employee and the shortage of labor.”

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