Tyson Foods to indefinitely suspend operations at Waterloo, Iowa plant

Dive Brief:

  • Tyson Fresh Meats, the beef and pork subsidiary of Tyson Foods, said it plans to indefinitely suspend operations at its Waterloo, Iowa, pork plant this week, the company said in a statement.
  • Tyson said the facility, the company’s largest pork plant, has been running at reduced levels of production due to worker absenteeism.
  • The facility’s 2,800 workers will be compensated while the plant is closed. The company said when the plant reopens will depend on several factors, including the outcome of employee testing for coronavirus.

Dive Insight:

Just a day after reopening its pork processing plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, after workers tested positive for coronavirus, Tyson Foods is shuttering another facility hit by the fast-spreading virus.

Earlier this week, CBS 2 Iowa reported that a half dozen state lawmakers filed a formal complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration after outbreaks of the coronavirus were identified at Tyson Fresh Meat facilities in Iowa. One of the six Democratic lawmakers was from Waterloo.

“Given the huge spike in positive cases in Black Hawk County over the last week, the accounts we’ve heard from employees at Tyson can no longer be ignored. We need immediate action from [Iowa] Governor Reynolds and Tyson to stop the outbreak in our community, protect workers, and save lives,” State Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, who filed the complaint, said. “The longer they wait, the worse the destruction in our community will be.”

Meat and chicken processors have been hit hard in recent weeks, with several plants from companies such as Tyson, JBS, Sanderson Farms, Cargill and Smithfield Foods closing down or significantly curtailing operations. In April, at least 14 meat processing plants in the U.S. and Canada have limited production because of employee outbreaks, according to Food Dive records.

The food industry as a whole has been deemed essential during the coronavirus. While some meat processors have implemented safety measures such as putting dividers between workers, the job requires employees to be close together, making it difficult to prevent the spread of the virus even if precautions are taken. Some workers are speaking out about the work conditions, saying that some plants are not doing enough.

At a JBS beef processing plant in Pennsylvania, employees said working in close quarters led them to voice concerns for their personal safety. Employees complained JBS was ignoring calls for social distancing and is improperly disinfecting equipment and communal spaces, according to a Denver news channel

As more plants close, even for a short period of time, there is growing evidence that they are having a sweeping impact on many facets of the economy, both locally where the facilities are located and nationally when it comes to meat supply.

As Tyson noted in its statement, shuttering a plant not only impacts those who work there, but it directly impacts farmers, truckers and other individuals tied to the supply chain. There also is mounting concern that as more plants close there will not be enough capacity for meat and poultry processing, eventually creating shortages on grocery store shelves.

“The closure has significant ramifications beyond our company,”  Steve Stouffer, group president of Tyson Fresh Meats​, said. “It means the loss of a vital market outlet for farmers and further contributes to the disruption of the nation’s pork supply.” 

Tyson’s Columbus Junction location reopened after being closed for two weeks, and it’s possible the meat processing giant will use that as a framework for how to handle restarting operations again in Waterloo. As the meat industry continues to get hit, it can’t ignore the fact that outbreaks keep appearing, and while other food and beverage companies have seen them as well, they so far haven’t been as widespread or come as close to impacting the food supply. 

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