Tyson suspends Iowa hog plant due to COVID-19

More than two dozen workers at a Tyson Foods pork plant were stricken with COVID-19, forcing the meatpacker to suspend operations at its mammoth plant in Columbus Junction in southeastern Iowa, the No. 1 hog state. Tyson Foods announced the shutdown on Monday as the coronavirus spread farther into rural America.

Many slaughter and meat processing plants are located in small towns and cities in rural America, close to the farms and feed lots that produce the millions of cattle, hogs, and poultry that are consumed annually by Americans. The USDA forecasts per-capita consumption of a record 227.4 pounds of meat this year, nearly 10 ounces a day.

“Our meat and poultry plants are experiencing varying levels of production impact, due to the planned implementation of additional worker safety precautions and worker absenteeism,” said Tyson chief executive Noel White. “For example, out of an abundance of caution, we have suspended operations at our Columbus Junction, Iowa, pork plant this week due to more than two dozen cases of COVID-19 involving team members at the facility.”

Tyson said it some of its other pork plants would handle the hogs that were scheduled for delivery to Columbus Junction. The plant employs 1,400 workers and slaughters more than 10,000 hogs a day, analysts told Meatingplace. U.S. hog plants slaughter 400,000 to 500,000 head a day.

The virus’s penetration into rural areas has been slower than in urban America. One-third of rural counties had not reported a case of COVID-19, compared with 5% of urban counties, as of Sunday night, said the Daily Yonder. Just over 200 of America’s nearly 2,000 rural counties have reported a death from COVID-19. But the number of COVID-19 cases is now rising more rapidly in rural areas than in cities.

Some U.S. meatpackers have slowed production to accommodate sanitation regimens against the coronavirus. There are occasional one- or two-day shutdowns for cleaning. National Beef Packing Co. suspended cattle slaughter at a Tama, Iowa, plant on Monday for cleaning that originally was scheduled for later this month, reported Reuters.

A week ago, meatpacker JBS said it would reduce production at its beef plant in Souderton, Pennsylvania, for two weeks because several senior managers had flu-like symptoms. The Souderton plant, which employs 1,000 people, is the largest JBS beef plant east of Chicago, said the Wall Street Journal.

Empire Kosher closed a poultry processing plant in Mifflintown, Pennsyvania, for two weeks for cleaning amid reports that multiple employees tested positive for the coronavirus. Canadian meatpacker Olymel closed a hog slaughter and processing plant for 14 days after nine employees tested positive for COVID-19. Other processors have reported that employees tested positive for coronavirus infections.

Meat plants are crowded workplaces where it is difficult to combine fast-paced production with recommendations of social distancing. Tyson Foods said it has erected dividers between work stations in some cases and is using tents at some plants to create outdoor break rooms.

Poultry processors, like hog and cattle processors, are taking steps such as more frequent cleaning and sanitation of equipment, screening employees for illness when they arrive for work, and encouraging workers to stay home if they feel ill, said the National Chicken Council, a trade group.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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