A Tyson Foods subsidiary announced Wednesday that it will temporarily close its Logansport pork processing plant no later than Saturday so that its 2,200 employees can undergo testing for COVID-19.
It’s the latest meat processing plant to close in the U.S., moves that have idled roughly a quarter of the nation’s pork processing capacity.
Tyson made the Indiana announcement in a joint statement with the Cass County Health Department, which is helping to coordinate the testing that is to begin as soon as Thursday.
At least 146 employees have already tested positive, The Indianapolis Star reported. A Tyson spokesman told IBJ the situation is “ever changing.”
The company’s group president, Steve Stouffer, said in a statement that the “combination of worker absenteeism, COVID-19 cases and community concerns has resulted in a collective decision to close.”
“While we understand the necessity of keeping our facilities operational so that we can continue to feed the nation, the safety of our team members remains our top priority,” Stouffer said.
The plant processes 3 million pounds of pork daily from 250 independent family farmers in nine states, the company said.
It previously suspended operations for one day—on April 20—for a deep cleaning and sanitizing. It has since been running at limited production and plans to close on or before Saturday.
The company said it will continue to pay employees during the shutdown. It said a decision to reopen will depend in part on the number of employees who test positive for COVID-19.
Cass County’s health officer, Dr. Dori Ditty, said in a statement that the department’s goal is to “get the facility back up and running as safely and quickly as possible, which is why we’ve both decided to close the facility in order to test all employees.”
“Tyson Fresh Meats is an economic anchor for our community and is critical for the food supply,” she said.
County officials said they had done a walk-through of the plant and observed aggressive protective measures, including workstation dividers, barriers on break tables, and front door operators that helped workers avoid touching door knobs.
“We’re aware that while employees are practicing protective measures at work, they may not be practicing it at home which is critical to help stop overall community spread,” Ditty said in a statement.
The Springdale, Arkansas-based Tyson Foods said it formed a coronavirus task force in January to begin planning for the virus and has implemented protective measures across its plants. That has not stopped the virus from spreading in them, however.
The company announced on Wednesday that it will also suspended operations at its Waterloo, Iowa, pork processing plant this week. It’s the biggest Tyson plant and accounts for 3.9% of U.S. pork processing capacity.
More than 180 infections have been linked to the Iowa plant and officials expect that number to dramatically rise. Testing of its 2,800 workers is expected to begin Friday.
Cases and hospitalizations in Iowa’s Black Hawk County have skyrocketed in recent days and local officials say the plant is the source of most infections.
Employers have struggled to contain the virus in meatpacking plants, where workers toil side by side on production lines and often share crowded locker rooms, cafeterias and rides to work. While plants have added safety measures, public health experts say social distancing is virtually impossible.
Several facilities have temporarily closed due to virus outbreaks, including a Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; a JBS USA plant in Worthington, Minnesota; and a Redwood Farms Meat Processors in Estherville, Iowa. Others have stayed open or resumed production after pauses for testing and cleaning.
An estimated 25% of U.S. pork processing capacity has been closed or idled due to reduced operating speed over the past two days, said Steve Meyer, an economist with Kerns and Associates in Ames, Iowa.
As a result, prices are starting to increase and analysts warn that customers could soon see shortages of certain products at grocery stores. At the same time, hog prices are plummeting due to excess supply, devastating farmers.
In Kansas, a critical beef production state, an official said Wednesday that 168 meatpacking workers had tested positive to date. In Missouri, two rural counties that are home to several meatpacking plants reported huge spikes in infections.
Tyson Fresh Meats President Steve Stouffer said its Waterloo closure was driven by “the combination of worker absenteeism, COVID-19 cases and community concerns.” He warned of “significant ramifications” for farmers, distributors and grocers in the supply chain.