COVID-19 pandemic causes plant shutdowns
U.S. processing plants cease production; Canadian Olymel has re-opened (story updated April 20, 2020)
As the coronavirus continues to spread, more food processing facilities have had to close their doors.
Although COVID-19 is not considered a food safety concern—as there is little to no risk of contracting it from food products, according to governmental agencies—those who work on the processing lines are contracting the virus from each other. Because meat-processing workers, especially, are in close proximity to one another on the line, it has been difficult to curtail the spread through social distancing, causing several plants to shutter their doors. Smithfield, Tyson and JBS are among the largest meat processing plants to cease operations. Closures are not limited to meat plants, though. Among the most recent closures is Flowers Foods, a bakery based in Thomasville, Ga.
Once production stops are over and it is time to resume operating, what can plants expect? Pork and poultry producer, Olymel, in Canada, has recently re-opened after a two-week shutdown, and its experience is useful for processors looking to manage a shutdown.
SMITHFIELD FOODS INC.
On April 12, Smithfield Foods Inc., announced that its Sioux Falls, S.D., plant will remain closed until further notice. Representing 4 to 5% of U.S. pork production, the plant is one of the largest in the country, supplying nearly 130 million servings of food per week, or about 18 million servings per day, and employs 3,700 people.
“Unfortunately, COVID-19 cases are now ubiquitous across our country,” says Kenneth M. Sullivan, president and CEO at Smithfield. “The closure of this facility, combined with a growing list of other protein plants that have shuttered across our industry, is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply.”
He says it is impossible to keep grocery stores stocked if their plants are not running. “These facility closures will also have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions for many in the supply chain, first and foremost our nation’s livestock farmers. These farmers have nowhere to send their animals. Unfortunately, COVID-19 cases are now ubiquitous across our country. The virus is afflicting communities everywhere.”
Just three days after the announcement of the Sioux Falls plant, Smithfield announced the closure of two more of its facilities—its Cudahy, Wis., and Martin City, Mo., facilities. The company reports its Cudahy dry sausage and bacon plant will shutter for two weeks. The Martin City plant, which employs more than 400 people and produces spiral and smoked hams, receives raw material from the company’s Sioux Falls facility. Without the raw materials from Sioux Falls, the Martin City facility cannot continue to run.
“The closure of our Martin City plant is part of the domino effect underway in our industry,” Sullivan says. “It highlights the interdependence and interconnectivity of our food supply chain. Our country is blessed with abundant livestock supplies, but our processing facilities are the bottleneck of our food chain. Without plants like Sioux Falls running, other further processing facilities like Martin City cannot function. This is why our government has named food and agriculture critical infrastructure sectors and called on us to maintain operations and normal work schedules.”
Smithfield reports it will resume operations in Sioux Falls once it receives further direction from local, state and federal officials. This will also allow the company to bring its Martin City facility back online.
“From farm to fork, our nation’s food workers, American family farmers and the many others in the supply chain are vital to the security of our country. This is particularly evident as we battle COVID-19 together. Please join me in thanking them,” Sullivan says.
Tyson’s meat and poultry plants have experienced varying levels of production impact, due to the planned implementation of additional worker safety precautions and worker absenteeism. According to a statement issued on April 6 by Tyson’s CEO, Noel White, “Out of an abundance of caution, we have suspended operations at our Columbus Junction, Iowa, pork plant … due to more than two dozen cases of COVID-19 involving team members at the facility. In an effort to minimize the impact on our overall production, we’re diverting the livestock supply originally scheduled for delivery to Columbus Junction to some of our other pork plants in the region.”
Tyson reports they have been taking the temperature of workers at all of its locations before they enter company facilities. “We’re mostly using temporal thermometers but at a few locations we’re beginning to implement infrared temperature scanners. In addition, we’ve stepped up deep cleaning and sanitizing of our facilities, especially in employee breakrooms, locker rooms and other areas, to protect our team members. This additional cleaning sometimes requires suspending at least one day of production. While these are challenging times, we remain committed to protecting our people while continuing to meet the needs of our customers and consumers across America,” says White.
The company says it is continuing to explore and implement additional ways to promote more social distancing in its plants, including dividers between workstations or increasing the space between workers on the production floor, which can involve slowing production lines. “We’re also creating more room in non-production areas. For example, at some locations, we’ve set up tents to create outdoor break rooms,” White says.
On April 13, JBS USA announced the temporary closure of the Greeley beef production facility until April 24, 2020, and multiple additional efforts to support the fight against coronavirus in Weld County, Colo. As the largest employer in the county with more than 6,000 team members, the company says it is focusing its efforts to help combat the spread of coronavirus.
“While the Greeley beef facility is critical to the U.S. food supply and local producers, the continued spread of coronavirus in Weld County requires decisive action,” says Andre Nogueira, CEO of JBS USA. “As a leading member of this community, we believe we must do our part to support our local health professionals and first responders leading the fight against coronavirus.”
To date, JBS USA has adopted the following safety measures, health protocols and worker benefits at all its facilities.
- Increasing sanitation and disinfection efforts, including whole facility deep-cleaning every day.
- Promoting physical distancing by staggering starts, shifts and breaks, and increasing spacing in cafeterias, break and locker rooms, including Plexiglas dividers in key areas.
- Dedicating staff to continuously clean facilities.
- Temperature testing all team members prior to entering our facilities, including the use of hands-free thermometers and thermal imaging testing technology in many locations.
- Providing extra personal protective equipment (PPE), including protective masks that are required to be worn at all times.
- Removing vulnerable populations from our facilities, offering full pay and benefits.
- Requiring sick team members to stay home from work.
- Waiving short-term disability waiting periods.
- Relaxing attendance policies so people do not come to work sick.
- Providing free 100% preventative care to all team members.
- Offering free LiveHealth Online services that allow for virtual doctor visits at no cost.
The company has announced the indefinite closure of the Worthington, Minn., pork production facility. The facility employs more than 2,000 Nobles County team members and processes 20,000 hogs per day.
“We don’t make this decision lightly,” says Bob Krebs, president of JBS USA Pork. “We recognize JBS Worthington is critical to local hog producers, the U.S. food supply and the many businesses that support the facility each and every day.”
The Worthington pork facility will wind down operations over the next two days with a diminished staff to ensure existing product in the facility can be used to support the food supply. In partnership with the state of Minnesota and Nobles County, the company will advise its Worthington team members to follow Minnesota Governor Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order until returning to work. The company will continue to pay its team members during the plant closure.
“As we all learn more about coronavirus, it is clear that the disease is far more widespread across the U.S. and in our county than official estimates indicate based on limited testing,” Krebs says. “We have taken aggressive actions to keep coronavirus out of our plant and keep this critical infrastructure facility operational. It is our hope that Governor Walz’s effort to implement more widespread community testing will help all of us better understand the measures we must all take to stop its potential spread. We must work together to defeat this common enemy.”
JBS USA operates more than 60 meat, poultry and prepared foods facilities across the United States. The Worthington pork production facility is the third JBS USA plant to temporarily close, joining the Souderton, Penn., beef production facility, which reopened on Monday, April 20, and the Greeley beef production facility, which remains closed.
Cargill Inc. has closed its Hazelton, Pa., meat plant. The facility produces meat for retail food customers, including ground beef, steaks, beef roasts and pork products, according to its website.
“Our goal is to keep our 900 employees at this case-ready protein facility healthy and minimize risk within the Hazleton community, which has been greatly impacted by COVID-19,” Cargill says, as cited by Reuters.
FLOWERS FOODS, INC.
Producer of Nature’s Own, Wonder, Tastykake, Dave’s Killer Bread, and other bakery foods, Flowers Foods announced on April 14 that it has temporarily stopped production at its bakery in Tucker, Ga., to safeguard the wellness of its 255 team members. The bakery, which produces primarily frozen, non-retail specialty and foodservice bread and bun items, expects to resume production on or around April 27, 2020.
The company made the decision, out of an abundance of caution, following an increase in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases at the bakery as well as absences of those in self-quarantine, according to a press release issued by the company. The bakery is located in DeKalb County, which currently has the third-most confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Flowers will pay furloughed production employees and ask those employees to shelter-in-place until the bakery resumes production. The bakery will maintain a small crew for sanitation and operation of a cross dock. Those team members will continue to be required to pass wellness and temperature screenings and wear personal protective equipment at all times. The bakery also will maintain its enhanced sanitation schedule.
The company anticipates the closure will have only a limited impact on its ability to service the market as other bakeries in Flowers’ network are expected to offset most of the lost production in the near term.
ROCHELLE FOODS, LLC
Based in Rochelle, Ill., the wholly owned subsidiary of Hormel Foods Corporation will pause production for a period of 14 days based on a notice of closure from the local health department. In a press release, the company says it is working with local officials to understand further the closure order as well as consult with internal and external subject matter experts to understand the next steps to reopen the facility.
The release indicates the closure is in response to further spread of COVID-19 in the area and the impact on the production facility, which makes retail and foodservice products. Rochelle Foods has committed to pay its team members during these 14 days.
“We have decided to close our facility to ensure a broader understanding of COVID-19 and the impact to our operations,” says Bill Rice, plant manager. “Unfortunately, the outbreak has had an effect on our ability to fully operate. We have been part of the fabric of this community for decades, so this news is incredibly disappointing to our great team of people. For years, we have provided support to our local food banks and made products used by FEMA and other disaster response programs in times of need. To help continue to do our part, we are eager to reopen soon and start making our great products, just as we have done uninterrupted for decades.”
The company reports it continues to maintain the highest sanitation and food safety standards in the production facility as well as implementing further enhancements such as education for team members on the COVID-19 virus, increased sanitization frequency, providing additional personal protective equipment, prohibiting outside visitors and taking team members’ temperatures.
Canadian pork and poultry processor Olymel resumed operations April 14 after having implemented all the public health recommendations of the public health department of the Mauricie and Centre-du-Québec Integrated University Health and Social Services Centre (CIUSSS MCQ), according to a press release issued by the company.
Employees who have been in isolation since March 29 were recalled according to a list approved by public health authorities and in accordance with the provisions of the employment contract. Recalled employees were given instructions about the new protocol, which was adapted for work in a slaughterhouse and related activities such as cutting and packaging. Olymel reports that Dr. Serge Dubuc, a specialist in occupational medicine, as well as an occupational hygiene technician from the CIUSSS-MCQ were on site Tuesday to supervise the return to work.
Although all of the measures recommended by public health have been applied in all Olymel plants since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the press release, the configuration of the work environment in a slaughterhouse and cutting plant requires particular adaptation. For example, when the distance of two meters cannot be respected between two working stations, a mitigation measure is instituted such as the installation of separating panels and the wearing of a mask and protective visor, under the recommendation of l'Institut national de santé publique du Québec, and in addition to all the other protections already in place.
Increased monitoring and screening activities as well as permanent signs will raise awareness and promote responsibility. Hygiene and disinfection measures will be rigorously enforced.
Olymel says they have been paying particular attention to the transportation of employees coming from outside the Mauricie and Centre-du-Québec region using shuttles, and the situation is being closely monitored in collaboration with the employment agencies. The shuttles will only be able to operate if they respect a distance of two meters between passengers. Agency workers will be monitored and public health authority recommendations must be followed.
Olymel will continue the bonus program it announced on March 23 for all employees who are paid hourly wages, until further notice. The program will also be extended to include overtime.
Olymel says the plant's production capacity will be adapted to the number of employees available to carry out various tasks, which may affect the type of products produced and the slaughter capacity.
Réjean Nadeau, president and CEO of Olymel, says, “On behalf of Olymel management, I would like to thank all of the Yamachiche plant employees, who have been following lockdown instructions since March 29 and have agreed to come back to work on April 14 in these current difficult circumstances. To everyone at the Yamachiche plant and our other Olymel plants who has tested positive for COVID-19, we wish you a speedy recovery. I salute all the employees who are helping us answer the government's call to provide an essential service that feeds millions of people in lockdown. Finally, I would like to thank all of our partners and representatives, clients and suppliers, elected officials and government decision-makers who are working with us through this difficult time.”