The coronavirus pandemic is hitting U.S. meat operations, slowing and temporarily halting production at some plants as sickness and fear keep workers home. JBS USA Holdings has closed a beef processing plant in Souderton, Pa., for two weeks, a spokesman told The Wall Street Journal. The plant, which produces ground beef and other products and employs more than 1,000 people, gradually reduced operations last week after several managers were sent home with flu-like symptoms.
The JBS spokesman said the temporary closure is meant to ensure the plant has sufficient management in place for its expected April 16 reopening. Employees are being paid for a 32-hour workweek, and supermarkets are being supplied from other JBS plants.
On April 6, Tyson Foods suspended operations at its Columbus Junction, Iowa, pork plant after more than two dozen cases of COVID-19 were reported among employees there. The company is diverting hog deliveries from that plant to other nearby facilities, and employees are being paid during the anticipated one-week closure. Tyson is performing extra cleaning that has required some other plants to close for a day.
On April 2, Sanderson Farms said its Moultrie, Ga., poultry plant will temporarily reduce production by nearly one-fourth after it asked 415 of the plant’s roughly 1,500 workers to stay home. CEO Joe Sanderson called it a precautionary move as coronavirus cases jumped in the area. The company plans to hire around 200 additional employees there and is paying the current employees that are staying home.
The various closures aren’t expected to significantly affect overall meat availability, at least in the short term, since meat production generally has been high, and restaurant closures mean fewer burgers and less chicken consumed in foodservice settings. Some meat industry and labor officials said they expect other slowdowns and further interruptions as worker absences rise.
“As the COVID-19 crisis continues to evolve, we’ve enacted numerous proactive measures to protect our associates during this uncharted time,” said Randy Day, Perdue Farms CEO, in a company press release. “For example, at our plants, we are practicing social distancing not only in common areas, such as break rooms and cafeterias but also on the production lines where possible. Where social distancing isn’t possible, we are rolling out temporary installations of dividers between our associates on production lines.”
Concern over the virus, and worries that close-quarters work in meat-cutting lines and plant locker rooms could help spread it, have led more plant employees to walk off processing lines and call for companies to take further steps to protect workers. Meat processors like JBS, Perdue, Sanderson, Tyson, and Cargill have increased wages and, in some cases, changed operations to spread out employees.